LOWRY/Moderates dominating 2024 race
Back in 2016, the most moderate Republican candidate in the race was Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who lost everywhere except his home state.
Perhaps the most moderate candidate in the field as of this moment is Donald Trump.
If you want a Republican who won’t cut spending or start foreign wars, Trump is still your man.
Added to this now is clearly a discomfort with the fight over abortion in the post-Roe environment.
Trump’s main line of attack against Ron DeSantis is from the left. He’s hitting the Florida governor hard for his past support for reining in Social Security and Medicare.
He’s also called the governor’s culture-war clash with Disney “so unnecessary” and “a political stunt,” while not entering the fray in the conservative war with Bud Light.
Of course, Trump’s personal power is such that he’s made loyalty to himself the standard for being considered right wing — orthodox conservatives who reject Trump are more apt to be labeled moderates than Trump himself.
The substantive definition of the right is also up for grabs. What is the more right-wing position? Trump saying that he’ll end the Ukraine war in a day through his personal diplomacy — the kind of naive position once associated with soft-headed Democrats — or a hawk saying that he’ll continue to arm Ukraine to the hilt? It depends who you ask.
All of this is an indication of how Trump can be ideologically difficult to pin down, which benefited him in 2016 — both in the primaries and in the general — and could work for him again.
The alleged radicalism of Donald Trump has mostly to do with his personal conduct, his outrageous statements, his conspiracy theories, and his contempt for norms and rules. None of these are to be dismissed lightly, but none are ideological either.
In theory, it’d be possible to be perfectly polite and support a border wall (in fact, this describes most Republicans), or be in favor of open borders and be just as fond of insulting nicknames as Trump is.
If the former president were given a magic wand to move America in his direction policy-wise on his core commitments, and we had a secure border, more tariffs, fewer foreign entanglements, greater domestic energy production, the status quo on entitlements, and step toward the center-right and away from what Trump calls the “radical-left lunatics” on most culture issues, no one would think he or she were living in a right-wing dystopia — at least not if they didn’t know who was wielding the wand.
It’s Trump’s unique contribution to take an issue mix that could have broad appeal and make it toxic by association with himself.
In the 2016 nomination fight, Trump’s approach — getting to the rest of the field’s right on some issues (immigration, China) and to its left on others (especially entitlements) — paved his path to the nomination. That road didn’t run through self-described “very conservative” voters, but “somewhat” conservatives.
The crucial South Carolina primary illustrated the dynamic. According to exit polls, Ted Cruz won very conservative voters, with 35% to Trump’s 29 and Marco Rubio’s 19. Trump won somewhat conservatives, with 35% to Rubio’s 25 and Cruz’s 17. And Trump won moderates, with 34% to Rubio’s 23 and Kasich’s 21.
In other words, Trump was competitive with the very conservatives while besting the other candidates with the other factions.
Now, Trump has reversed the poles of his support. He’s most formidable with very conservatives and DeSantis is strongest with somewhat conservatives. The governor’s strategy of trying to peel off Trump supporters among the very conservative voters by getting to his right on substance, while appealing to the center-right with an electability argument, makes sense, although much depends on the execution.
Barry Goldwater famously said in his 1964 acceptance speech that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue. Donald Trump, of all people, is out to demonstrate that it could be one in pursuit of the Republican presidential nomination.
Rich Lowery is editor of National Review, a leading conservative magazine founded by William F. Buckley.