South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford officially announced on Sunday that he is running for president, but Republican officials in his home state are hardly enthusiastic. On Saturday they voted to cancel next year's primary.
Their objective is clearly to help President Donald Trump in 2020. Yet their gambit could have the effect of preventing another Donald Trump in 2024. If the cancellation is evidence of a reassertion of party control over the nominating process, then it is a positive development — for both the Republican Party and America.
Granted, that's a big if. Republicans in South Carolina aren't alone; cancellations are also either planned or under consideration in Nevada, Kansas and Arizona. Meanwhile, the Trump presidential campaign has taken the unprecedented step of integrating itself with the Republican National Committee. The two share office space — in Trump Tower, of course —and have been jointly making personnel decisions.
Some might see this as simply another manifestation of Trump's creeping authoritarianism and the shameless capitulation of the GOP establishment. A better way to view it is as a sign of weakness, not of strength. For previous presidents, the party establishment was a source of both power and support. For Trump, it is not.
Consider that Trump has faced bitter establishment opposition since before he became president. Right up until the convention, never-Trumpers were hatching parliamentary schemes to deny him the nomination. The distress continued even after Trump took office, with several members of his Cabinet and staff leaving out of frustration.
All this happened for a reason. Trump's approach to politics and policy are not only out of step with party orthodoxy, but they have also alienated key Republican constituencies and enmeshed the U.S. in a trade war that may very well drive the economy into recession.
Whether the president leaves office in 2021 or 2025, what exactly a post-Trump GOP is going to look like is a question Republicans need to start addressing. And one of the best places to debate it is in the presidential nominating process. Unfortunately, the voter-driven primary is antithetical to small-r republicanism in principle and small-d democracy in practice.
Republican institutions are supposed to empower civil society and prevent concentrations of political power that threaten it. Voter-driven primaries turn over control of the electoral process to small groups of highly ideological partisans who are, almost by definition, unrepresentative of the typical citizen — and even of the typical party member.
Consider the case of the most popular governor in America, Republican Charlie Baker of Massachusetts. His current approval rating is close to 70%, and he won re-election overwhelmingly in 2018 on what was otherwise an awful night for the party.
It's hard to argue that the primary process helped Massachusetts Republicans in 2018; it just gave a fringe candidate free publicity. And even when fringe candidates don't win, they can infect mainstream politics; from 2010 to 2014, Republican members of Congress feared potential primary challengers nearly as much as a default on the U.S. debt. This kind of recklessness has poisoned American politics.
The only way for the parties to control their own fate is to wrest more control over the nomination process. That may be hard for never-Trumpers to swallow in 2020, but they may come to appreciate it in the years ahead.