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Trump Is Making Presidential Politics Weird Again

Trump Is Making Presidential Politics Weird Again

Saturday, 4 September, 2021 - 05:00

There’s some reporting that former President Donald Trump may announce soon that he’s running for the White House again. What — if anything — should we make of that?

Early candidacy announcements are usually a sign of weakness. Longshots announce early, and begin campaigning early, because they need a lot of time to build enough attention and support to persuade party actors and news organizations to take them seriously. Take, for example, former US Representative John Delaney of Maryland, who announced his unlikely 2020 candidacy on July 28, 2017.

But Trump’s situation is different. It’s at least possible that by jumping in definitively at this early stage, he could convince everyone else to stay out. The longer uncertainty persists, the more other politicians will be doing candidate-like things, which in turn could make one or more of them more likely to stay in and run a serious campaign. Even if Trump would be the likely winner, he’d rather have the nomination given to him than to have to fight for it, and an early announcement might do the trick.

Then again? This is Trump, and there’s no reason to believe he’s acting strategically. He could simply be bored, or crave media attention that’s slipped away during a heavy cycle of major news stories. Perhaps he’s annoyed that President Joe Biden is getting the credit he wanted for exiting Afghanistan (even if Biden is getting terrible press for his handling of the withdrawal), while Trump is reduced to being part of an unflattering sidebar about the deal he negotiated with the Taliban.

Or he may just be acting on impulse. And he may back away from an announcement he was planning to make. We’ll see.

This is a peculiar presidential election cycle. Typically at this stage of things — and there are, after all, only two years and a few months left before the Iowa caucuses, and perhaps 18 months or so before the potential beginning of nomination debates — we would know a lot more than we do this time around. It would usually be evident that the out-party would have a contested nomination, and we would either be fairly confident that the incumbent president would be renominated or, during a second term, relatively certain that the nomination would be contested. This time we know neither.

On the Democratic side, Biden is acting as if he’ll run for a second term, which is the obvious strategy for his current presidential term, whatever he’ll eventually decide to do about 2024. And while his approval ratings have dipped some, they would have to be quite a bit worse for any significant Democrat to run against him. If, that is, he really does seek a second term that would begin after he turns 82. We probably won’t learn anything more until after the midterm elections next November, and until then no Democrat is likely to do anything that even faintly smells of a presidential campaign.

On the Republican side, it is all about Trump. Other potential candidates have been quite a bit more active so far than their Democratic counterparts, but it’s still been a much quieter presidential election cycle than would normally be the case. No Republican wants to risk becoming Trump’s target. Still, at least a dozen or so potential contenders have been doing the things that candidates do, only with somewhat more pretense than usual. Texas Senator Ted Cruz was in Iowa this week, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in New Hampshire, and any number of current and former statewide officeholders were sure to comment on Afghanistan and otherwise seek to build up their national profiles.

In other words, there is a normal presidential cycle developing, on the Republican side at least, even with the possibility that it will wind up being canceled.

Yes, this all seems way too early. But for better or worse, that’s how the US system works. And there are some good reasons for perpetual elections. Political parties in the US are made up of many thousands of politicians, campaign and governing professionals, formal party officials and staff, activists and donors, party-aligned interest groups and partisan media. They are spread out all around the nation, and they are organized along constantly churning loose networks of associates instead of fixed, top-down hierarchies. Candidates spend years running for the nomination in part because it simply takes a lot of time to meet those party actors — which is necessary, at least for candidates who aren’t Trump, to raise the resources and put together the organizations necessary to seriously contest the nomination.

All of this is important because those party actors want not just a candidate who can win. They want a candidate who will, as all the presidents from Ronald Reagan on have done with only a partial exception in Trump, run a partisan presidency. Just as Biden is doing right now.


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