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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Republicans Aren’t Asking Trump to “Step Aside,” Are They?

In the wake of Trump’s criminal conviction, a rather obvious contrast between the two parties occurred to me that Democrats ought to think about. I wrote about it at New York.

One of the most notable aspects of the 2024 presidential contest has been how often voices have been raised in the left-of-center commentariat calling on Democrats to abort Joe Biden’s reelection campaign before it’s too late. In February, the New York Times’ Ezra Klein created an enormous buzz with a podcast episode suggesting that Biden “step aside” and let his party choose a more electable (and non-octogenarian) nominee. My colleague Jonathan Chait has discussed this possibility as well. And the idea was raised again quite recently by polling-maven-turned-pundit Nate Silver.

I’m on record as raining on this particular parade for multiple reasons, including the overreaction to marginally adverse polls it represents, the extremely unlikely Biden self-defenestration it would require, and the lack of any Democratic consensus on a “replacement” nominee. But if it’s odd how many Democrats have proved ready to panic and consider previously unimaginable survival strategies after a few bad polls, it’s downright weird that there is no such talk in Republican ranks after that party’s presumptive presidential nominee was found guilty of 34 felony criminal charges. Might that prove to be a problem in November? And if so, might Republicans, who frequently complain that the nation cannot survive another four years of Joe Biden as president, do well to choose someone from their own “bench” who has somehow managed never to be indicted for and convicted of a crime?

The very idea of Trump “stepping aside” or being pushed aside is laughable, of course. Whatever else he is, the 45th president is convinced he’s the most indispensable man in American — and perhaps world — history. After a hostile takeover in 2016 he has imposed an iron grip on the Republican Party that has clearly tightened after Trump demolished a large field of rivals this year. Nonetheless, the fact that these rivals even ran for president betrays the existence, however weak and attenuated, of an undercurrent of doubt about the wisdom of a third straight Trump nomination. But no one in GOP circles — absolutely no one — is articulating it now that there is a major objective reason for worry. Indeed, Team Trump’s savage reaction to prize Senate candidate Larry Hogan’s mild re-verdict suggestion of respect for the legal process that led to it shows how little grumbling will be tolerated. The two major parties couldn’t be much farther apart in this respect.

It is true there is one legitimate reason Republicans might not consider reconsidering Trump even if he and his supporters would allow it: Unlike Democratic delegates who are loosely bound to the candidate under whose banner they were chosen, Republican Trump delegates are formally and in some states legally bound to back the former president unless he explicitly releases them. A convention revolt against Trump (again, a laughable proposition) would require an overwhelming consensus of the party leaders Trump himself has chosen. So there’s not much point in talking about it, particularly since that would call down upon the doubters thunderbolts from Mar-a-Lago.

But in the end, the difference between Democrats and Republican in dealing with the problems facing their flawed 2024 presidential nominees is that unlike Trump himself, Republicans don’t seem to value winning above all else. Yes, he is a formidable politician with great strengths harnessed to great weaknesses, and yes, there’s no evidence yet the verdict in Manhattan is significantly eroding his consistent lead over Biden in most polls. But Republicans should rightly fear that day after day and week after week of Team Biden branding Trump as a convicted felon will eventually have an effect. Without question, years and years of data show Trump is as unpopular a politician as Biden, and if he did somehow “step aside,” Republicans could easily find a nominee better able to dispatch the unpopular incumbent. Republicans do not, moreover, have the kind of succession problem facing Democrats in the form of a sitting vice-president who is as unpopular as her boss.

Republicans are in unshakable solidarity with Donald Trump despite his criminal record because they truly don’t see an alternative path. And that’s true even if they privately fear he will lead them to defeat, and after that, to another denial of defeat that could end in another attempted insurrection or at a minimum in horrific civil discord. For all their famed irresolution, proneness to panic, and “bed-wetting” tendencies, Democrats still belong to a party where free speech is possible. If their nominee was convicted of multiple felonies, at least some Democrats would be looking actively and publicly for a replacement. But Republicans belong to a cult of personality where any hint of rebellion is punished ruthlessly. And that’s the party that will take power with Trump if he manages to get back into the White House.

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