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It's Happening Again

It is probably best to look at the 2024 GOP field primarily as a race for the vice presidency.

Donald Trump Is Sworn In As 45th President Of The United States
Former Vice President Dick Cheney arrives on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. In today's inauguration ceremony Donald J. Trump becomes the 45th president of the United States. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

I am not the first to point out that we are looking at another Republican presidential cycle with a crowded field that will play to the only candidate with a well-established national presence and proven record of winning the White House, Donald Trump. Trump is, to be sure, not so prohibitive a favorite as he was in 2020, but the GOP is still his party. He leads in the polls. He leads in the fundraising. The party leadership is still his people, despite some pretty lackluster performances.

So, are his challengers serious? Are these people for real? Maybe.

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There is plenty of megalomania to go around in our political class. But it may be a more helpful exercise to regard the spate of announcements primarily as the preamble to the race for the vice presidency. What virtues, if any, do the contenders bring to the bottom of the ticket?

Trump needs a wartime consigliere, an America First Dick Cheney. Mike Pence’s selection in 2016 was a canny effort to unify the traditional GOP coalition members behind Trump, the Odoacer from Queens; in 2023, the GOP, for better or worse, is Trump. The 2024 vice presidential candidate should be selected for two qualities: First, an adherence to and an ability to articulate the America First policy line, much as Cheney was able to be the face of Bush’s foreign policy; second, competence and brutality in staffing and administration. 

Trump’s first term was marred by a paucity of staff and feckless management, as a collection of officials both career and political actively agitated against his policies, especially his foreign policy. Because of the flexibility of the vice president’s brief, a 2024 vice president can be devoted to the war within the admin. (Perhaps this is not what Walter Mondale had in mind when he invented the modern vice presidency, but our children sometimes surprise us.)  

Who are the options so far? 

Nikki Haley, the former South Carolinian governor, announced her candidacy with much fanfare yesterday. As The American Conservative’s own Declan Leary noted in his weekend column, Haley’s sterling quality is that she doesn’t stand for anything in particular, and appears to have little discomfort or shame when it comes to waffling about policy, which could be a real asset if the 2024 GOP platform is as vapid as 2020’s fifty-point non-platform or Kevin McCarthy’s embarrassing “Commitment to America.” 

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Trump was reportedly encouraging of her decision to step into the race, suggesting both that she is not a real threat and that she might be sufficiently submissive for the former president to eschew feuding with her, as he has tended to do with almost every other Republican grandee. But this is not inspiring stuff.

Mike Pompeo, the former Secretary of State, has not yet announced, but seems to be positioning himself to, based on his offputting weight loss, a new book, and a trip around the speaking circuit. Unlike Haley, Pompeo does seem to have policy commitments, mostly to keeping the blood splashing around the Middle East, antagonizing China, and palling around with the very worst people you know. While he helped Trump broker the Abraham accords regularizing relations between Israel and some Arab states, he otherwise seemed keen on getting the U.S. involved in some fresh conflicts.

Would he be an effective vice president? If Trump intends to continue what posterity is coming to regard as his characteristic first-term policy—no new wars—a number two who chafes against the mission may not be much of an asset.

Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina has all but announced his campaign—in fact, due to a “blunder” with the publication information page on his latest book, he declared his interest far ahead of anyone, in July of last year. The complete lack of interest generated in the media at that time is a testament to how serious a candidate he is. His signature policies: “Opportunity Zones” in the Trump tax package, a program that gives tax breaks for businesses in disadvantaged areas; a failed effort at police reform; various campaigns directed at education investment. He votes the party line on foreign policy, which he doesn’t touch in his campaign book—not an encouraging sign in a cycle that will be dominated in large part by American involvement in the Russia-Ukraine war. 

While he emphasizes his cordial working relationship with the former president, it is as if history stopped some time in early 2001 for Scott. His penchant for moderate and potentially very expensive domestic development is reminiscent of the 2000 campaign’s George W. Bush. What would he bring to the bottom of the ticket? He is, for reasons that escape me, an enormously successful fundraiser; for more reasons that escape me, the social conservative portions of the coalition have started to orient themselves toward him; he would make the accusations of racism thrown at Trump and his supporters seem stupider than usual. These aren’t nothing, but they aren’t the stuff of a wartime consigliere. 

Of course, of the likely candidates, the most substantial is Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis, who has run second to Trump in the polls for over a year. DeSantis has shown a capacity to enunciate a program and stick with it; he has been able to build and maintain an administration that actually does what he tells it to do. These are the qualities our America First Cheney would need. The rub: DeSantis, who is the only remotely viable contender to have emerged to date, may not want to settle for the bottom of the ticket, and Trump may not want him there.

Indeed, Trump’s style is not conciliatory; vanquished foes, if they come to terms, tend to be paraded around in ways that are very funny but offensive to the dignity of most people outside the political class. None of the losing candidates in ’16 became the vice presidential nominee. But a second Trump term faces clearer, grimmer challenges, and it is worth considering whether, in this field, our Augustus can find his Agrippa.