The reasons for the Republicans’ difficulties in redeeming their seven-year promise to repeal Obamacare range from President Donald Trump’s erratic leadership and unfocused salesmanship to the unpopular GOP health proposal’s inherent problems.
But underlying their problems is a split in the Republican Party that existed before Trump’s election and threatens to grow as House and Senate members confront the political fallout that could envelop them in the 2018 and 2020 elections.
The way that the party’s conservative majority has been resisting the concerns of more moderate senators and Republican governors raises the question whether this widening split could become a full-fledged rupture, leading to the first real three-way presidential race since Ross Perot’s candidacy in 1992.
And rather than hurting Trump’s re-election prospects, a three-way race could actually enhance them.
In one sense, the current circumstances mirror the GOP divisions more than a century ago when Theodore Roosevelt’s breakaway Progressive party undercut President William Howard Taft and made Woodrow Wilson the first Democratic president in 16 years.
Just as Roosevelt hurt Taft, most third-party candidates have tended to damage the party from which they skimmed off most of their voters (though Democratic President Harry S Truman survived the candidacies of not one but two splinter Democrats in 1948.)
However, the candidate who most benefits from that sort of situation in 2020 may be Trump. A three-way race might be the only way his inability to broaden his 40 percent base would prove an advantage that could win him a second term.
Without any increase in his appeal to independents, the president might struggle to repeat his 2016 victory in a two-way race, since he might have trouble holding voters who backed him out of disdain for both parties and candidates. That’s assuming Democrats put up an acceptable alternative.
Already, there are signs that the opposition to Trump that first surfaced in the 2016 Republican nominating race is persisting and widening. It’s been evident in the repeated criticism of Trump’s policies from Ohio Gov. John Kasich, whose actions belie his repeated demurrals he plans a second White House run after finishing third in the GOP contest last time.
Allied with Kasich are some other Republican governors, such as Massachusetts’Charlie Baker and Nevada’sBrian Sandoval, who have lobbied against the Senate GOP leadership’s health bill because of the Medicaid cuts it would inflict on their states. Unlike the federal government, most states have balanced budget requirements that limit their flexibility to absorb something like a federal Medicaid cutback.
It seems highly unlikely that someone like Kasich, whose term as governor ends in 2019, could wrest the Republican nomination from Trump. But it is easy to see a repetition of the 2016 defections from Trump morphing into some kind of an independent presidential effort, especially if Democrats go too far left in choosing their standard-bearer.
While third-party candidates have failed to win the presidency since the Civil War, many have had far more influence than is generally realized in tipping or coming close to tipping the outcome.
Two recent GOP victories, Trump’s in 2016 and George W. Bush’s in 2000, were aided by left-wing Green Party nominees who polled only 1 and 2.7 percent nationally but drained off enough Democratic votes to affect the outcome in key states. In 1976, an independent bid by former Democratic Sen. Eugene McCarthy swung four states from Jimmy Carter and might have elected Republican President Gerald Ford had the Democrats not succeeded in keeping him off the ballot in New York.
On the other hand, though Perot polled more than 19 percent in 1992 and polls showed some two-thirds of them had previously voted Republican, post-election analyses also showed he probably didn’t alter the outcome. His voters said they would have divided evenly between Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican President George H.W. Bush.
Admittedly, any discussion of a three-way 2020 race at this point is highly speculative, given that it is sometimes difficult in today’s confused political climate to predict what will happen next week or next month.
But it may well be the end result of the disdain and mistrust toward Trump among establishment Republicans like Kasich. And it may be a circumstance for which this White House might yearn if Trump is unable to regain his lost support.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.