The anti-Trump Republican movement, whatever remains of it, has been defined more by its articulation of first principles than its appreciation of winner-take-all politics. But politics is fundamentally about compromise, and the movement has been hamstrung by its inability to work with either the Trump administration or the Democratic opposition.
Short of working within the administration to influence the president’s agenda, the clearest option for anti-Trump Republicans would be to ensure that there’s at least one mainstream nominee running on the 2020 presidential ballot. That’s far from assured, given that Sen. Bernie Sanders is looking like a formidable Democratic candidate early on, with his socialist agenda winning support from a critical mass of primary voters and small-dollar donors.
Given these realities, it would make strategic sense for anti-Trump Republicans to forge a temporary alliance with the leading centrist candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, with the expectation that like-minded independents and moderate Republicans would play a critical role in tipping the scales in his favor via open Democratic primaries.
This isn’t at all unrealistic. At least 15 Democratic presidential primaries or caucuses are open to Republicans and independents, including the critical battlegrounds of Illinois, Michigan, Virginia, and Wisconsin. There’s plenty of recent history where crossover voters made a big impact in close contests. In 2000, John McCain won the New Hampshire and Michigan primaries over George W. Bush because independents swung in his favor. In 2016, Marco Rubio came close to defeating Trump in the Virginia primary because many Democratic voters in the Washington suburbs supported him to prevent Trump from winning.
Unlike those Republican insurgents, however, Biden starts off as a formidable candidate. Add anti-Trump Republicans to his potential coalition of more-moderate Democrats and African-Americans, and it would make a difference.
Furthermore, if party-switchers help Biden win the election, his presidency would more likely resemble a national unity coalition. He’d be indebted to the anti-Trump GOP defectors, and would owe them more than just a symbolic role in his administration.
From a practical perspective, anti-Trump Republicans have to play the long game. Unless former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld emerges as a viable primary challenger—and his odds are infinitesimal given Trump’s strong support within the GOP—they will be left without a natural ally on the ballot in next year’s election. They’ll need to settle on the least-worst option.
A Biden presidency would end the Trump experiment after one term, giving Republicans four years to reset their ideological future going forward. A Biden presidency also might effectively be term-limited given his advanced age, creating an opening for more-mainstream Republican opposition to emerge in short order.
One reality that Trump has exposed during his presidency is that American politics are becoming increasingly polarized, with voters reliably following the cues of their party’s leader. The president (or opposing presidential nominee) shapes the direction of their party much more than policy wonks or grassroots activists. American elections are becoming parliamentary, as voters cast ballots along party lines, regardless of the qualifications of the candidates.
Republicans have been forced to react and adapt to Trump’s whims, trying to make policy out of stray presidential tweets on the fly. It’s a chaotic mess. But the main reason so many Republicans are sticking with Trump is that his administration’s policies aren’t all that different from a more traditional Republican president, save for his views on trade and his single-minded focus on immigration. It’s his lack of character and divisive rhetoric that so many anti-Trump Republicans can’t stomach.
Democrats have the opposite problem. They are currently leaderless, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi struggling to manage the ideologically divergent interests within her caucus and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer languishing in the minority. Even though moderates make up nearly half of the party’s voters and a critical share of Pelosi’s caucus, the most outspoken progressives are driving the Democratic agenda.
But if Biden wins the nomination, he would empower the party’s silent majority of moderates and give them the upper hand in the party’s volatile coalition. A Biden presidency would squelch the Sanders revolution and allow the Democrats to reorient itself back towards its center-left comfort zone. And given his predilection for dealmaking, Biden would have a shot at tempering the growing radicalism in the Republican Party through compromise.
Democrats are waking up to the reality that Sanders is a serious contender, and given the unusually large and fractured nature of the presidential primary field, it may require another nationally known figure to prevent him from emerging. Biden, if he runs, would fill that space.
If anti-Trump Republicans remain estranged from their party, their apathy could end up electing an equally radical president from the other end of the ideological spectrum. But if they care about preventing Trumpism from taking over the Republican Party, they will recognize that the most realistic remedy is Joe Biden.