Musing on Republican prospects in 1968, Democratic Chairman of the National Committee John Bailey made what would be seen as a disastrous prognostication. “We know who our nominees will be,” he stated. “I’m happy to be able to say the Republicans have all their bloody infighting to look forward to.” Turns out Lyndon B. Johnson was seriously challenged in the primaries and withdrew on March 31, 1968.
For Donald Trump, it should serve as a warning. In 1967, LBJ appeared unbeatable, his popularity was around the same place Trump is in, at 46%. Even Johnson’s bitter rival Robert F. Kennedy was speaking well of him during the summer. His standing among Democrats was substantial and the party leadership and apparatus appeared to be behind him. Despite the Vietnam War, unemployment stood at 3.6% and Johnson assumed that Americans were in the main contented. In March 1968, Eugene McCarthy upset these assumptions.
But, in the summer of 2019, Trump would appear to face no opposition in the GOP. William Weld, former governor of Massachusetts, and Mark Sanford of South Carolina were threatening to oppose his renomination. Neither seems to have a chance, any more than McCarthy did in August 1967. Trump stands at 90% of the Republican vote in polls. His GOP opponents seem no bigger than a man’s hand on the horizon.
However, Trump should not be comfortable. Democrats in 1967 had considerable reason not to dump LBJ. He delivered on an agenda that spanned 20 years. Civil rights, Medicare, a tax cut finishing the work started by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Likewise, Trump delivered a tax cut and fulfilled a GOP wish list on regulations and judges. Perhaps like Johnson, he did too good a job.
Politics is the art of what have you done for me lately. Suddenly books on the GOP are showing just how deep Republican support for Trump actually is. Speaker Paul Ryan and others now tell journalists that Trump had to be guided and knew next to nothing about government. Trump may have for the GOP fallen into the trap of diminishing returns. Vice President Mike Pence, horrified by Greenville, let the White House staff know haw Republicans really felt.
Indeed, Republicans have every reason to doubt Trump. He lost the 2018 midterms, giving the Democrats control of the House of Representatives. The budget and the deficit, something that Republicans ran on in 2010, are now a small priority. If off-year elections are difficult for Republicans there will be rumbling. A Trojan Horse is only good if it manages to breach citadels; if it doesn’t, time to get a new vehicle.
Trump, who tried to be a different type of leader, protected Medicare and Social Security. For Republicans, that is a minor priority. He tried to make some overtures to North Korea, China and the Russian Federation. All of those initiatives have been stifled in the cradle. For the GOP, he is only as good as his excitability. Indeed, for the GOP any one of its members, including Pence, Ted Cruz and even a Sanford might prove more electable. Unimaginative and stubborn, Trump might find himself a scorned politico by forces who feel his usefulness is at an end.