Columnist David Shribman: Could 2024’s victor be a 2023 unknown?

Posted 5/25/23

WASHINGTON — Increasingly, it appears that it may take a phenomenon from the old Democratic Party for the new Republican Party to move beyond its nomination-infatuation with Donald Trump.

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Columnist David Shribman: Could 2024’s victor be a 2023 unknown?


WASHINGTON — Increasingly, it appears that it may take a phenomenon from the old Democratic Party for the new Republican Party to move beyond its nomination-infatuation with Donald Trump.

It is much forgotten in a party that depends so much on minorities and liberals, but the early front-runner for the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination was the populist, segregationist and racist governor of Alabama, George Corley Wallace. In early poll soundings, he had the support of a loyal core of 27% of Democrats, but he far outpaced other figures contemplating presidential candidacies. Names barely recalled today — George McGovern, Edmund Muskie, Henry Jackson, giants in their time — had scant support. Wallace enthusiasts were energized, party leaders terrorized.

The eventual Democratic presidential nominee in 1976 — a contest in which large segments of the party wanted to move beyond Wallace and the lackluster (and in some cases tired) also-rans — wasn’t even listed in the polls. He was former Gov. Jimmy Carter of Georgia. The respected but now nearly forgotten Sen. William Proxmire of Wisconsin got 5%.

History doesn’t repeat itself, to be sure, but Mark Twain was right in positing that sometimes it rhymes. This is not the 1976 campaign. The country is far different; the percent of Hispanics in the population now, to choose but one example of multitudes, is about 50% greater than it was a half-century ago. The media landscape is far more complex; the term “social media,” if it existed at all, meant a sociable drive-time AM radio personality. And Trump, while sharing surface attributes with Wallace — the uncanny ability to tweak and infuriate the elites, the intuitive skill to rouse his supporters with rhetorical flourishes — is a different strain of populist, with grievances shared by more Americans than those stoked by Wallace.

Carter, the subject of recurrent retrospectives and robust revisionism as he lies dying, came from nowhere en route to somewhere that no one — truly, the so-called wise men of the political press didn’t see it coming, no matter what they said later — remotely envisioned: the White House. Being nowhere made a nobody seem fresh and appealing. (If you think this is a rare phenomenon, ponder for a moment the names Franklin Pierce, James K. Polk, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield and Warren G. Harding — and some who won nominations but not the White House, such as John W. Davis and Wendell Willkie.)

Right now, Trump remains the front-runner for the GOP nomination, and he is in a far stronger position than Wallace ever was. He is a national figure, where Wallace remained a regional personality — though he had appeal in unlikely places in the North, with 1972 victories in Maryland and Michigan. Wallace may have had a history of conflicts with the Justice Department, but he never was indicted or had a jury find him liable (though there are some hints he later had a guilty conscience, not a Trump attribute). But the former president has an additional asset, a patina of incumbency growing out of having legitimately won the Electoral College in 2016.

The conventional wisdom is that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was, and again may be, the Trump alternative. That may be so; he showed some life (and some actual personality, with an ingratiating comment about a favored Iowa comestible served in gas stations: breakfast pizza) in the Hawkeye State last weekend. He had two good lines recently, one about the former president’s CNN slugfest (“an hour of nonsense that proved Trump is stuck in the past”), the other about Trump’s slight record as president and poor record as a 2022 endorser (politics is “ultimately about winning and producing results”).

Though DeSantis has no patience for the literary theory of deconstruction, let’s deconstruct his Iowa remarks:

“Governing is not about entertaining.”

The broad view of the Trump performance at the CNN town hall in New Hampshire is that he was a fighter. That misses the mark. He is primarily an entertainer. He read the crowd and entertained it.

“Governing is not about building a brand or talking on social media.”

Trump is more brand than political thinker, and much of his governing style in the presidency was on Twitter. Now it’s on Truth Social. Following the DeSantis visit to Iowa, a Wall Street Journal editorial spoke of the Florida governor’s “notable record of conservative governance in action.”

“There’s no substitute for victory. We must reject the culture of losing that’s infected our party in recent years. The time for excuses is over. We’ve got to demonstrate the courage to lead and the strength to win.”

Thus Trump’s greatest vulnerability. The candidates he endorsed were hurt rather than helped in the 2018 and 2022 midterms. He lost the 2020 election. Though polls now show Trump leading Joe Biden, Republicans don’t want to be four-time losers. The Trump rivals are going to pillory the front-runner as a loser. Nothing stings Trump more, which may be why DeSantis, back in Tallahassee on Monday, repeated the phrase “culture of losing.”

Alert readers will remember that the opening theme here was the fragility of the front-runner and the appeal of an unknown. Let’s return to that.

John Lindsay was elected New York’s mayor in 1965 for the same reason Carter was elected president less than a dozen years later. The analysis belongs to the journalist Murray Kempton, and it could apply to a 2024 Republican: “He is fresh and everyone else is tired.”

Today’s front-runners are tired: one who looks tired, another of whom a large segment of the electorate is bone-tired. The country yearns for someone — maybe anyone — fresh.

Where have you gone, Murray Kempton? (Actually, he died in 1997.) Because a nation turns its lonely eyes to your insight — and in the end, it may turn its eyes past Trump and Biden. All it took in 1976 was a Carter victory in Iowa and then the death blow to Wallace with a victory in Florida, a triumph in a Southern state.

Maybe the new figure is DeSantis, viewed favorably by 74% of Iowa Republicans, according to the Iowa Poll in March.

Maybe he is softening up Trump to make an opening for someone else. An upset by any Republican in Iowa or New Hampshire would reshape the Republican race, and maybe the Democratic.