Why Are We Doing This Again?
The proliferation of long-shot Republican presidential hopefuls has only one upside: Donald Trump will get to do his thing.
There you have it folks: After years of tireless effort, months of speculation, countless closed-door meetings with money men and power-brokers, Doug Burgum is set next week to announce his candidacy for president of the United States.
The natural response for all but a very few Americans will be, of course, Who? Burgum is the divorced billionaire governor of a sprawling state whose whole population numbers just north of Seattle’s.
As governor of North Dakota, Burgum has shied away from the culture war issues that motivate the country’s conservative base; in fact, wherever possible, he has avoided taking any position at all. From time to time, though, he has weighed in against the people he represents, as when he denounced his home state GOP for a 2020 resolution affirming the obvious truth that “LGBT practices are unhealthy and dangerous, sometimes endangering or shortening life and sometimes infecting society at large.”
Burgum has toed the party line, however, on big ticket items such as transgender grooming of children and anti-white racism in K–12 public schools. Just last month, he signed a strong pro-life law passed overwhelmingly by the North Dakota legislature. (In fact, the supermajorities in both chambers were so overwhelming that Burgum’s signature was a mere formality, and any veto would have been pointless.)
This is all to say that Burgum is not the worst possible candidate. He probably has more right than the average politician, even the average Republican. But he has more wrong than at least half a dozen current players of equal or higher stature who could just as easily throw their hats in the ring but have wisely opted not to.
More importantly, he has no chance of winning. His approval rating at home (where a whopping 76 percent of voters identify as Republicans, and a more modest 58 percent give the governor a thumbs up) is one of the highest in the country, which is likely what some consultant used to convince him he should run. But his name recognition outside of North Dakota is virtually non-existent, and his pitch to voters—boilerplate Reaganism on economics, defensive crouch on the social revolution—will not get anyone to the polls in either the primary or the general.
Nor is Burgum alone in mounting a pointless campaign this cycle. Did anyone even notice when Larry Elder announced he was running last month? The “small-l libertarian” who failed to topple the wildly unpopular Gavin Newsom in a recall election two years ago says he’s running for president to grapple with his guilt over not serving in the military.
Asa Hutchinson, another popular governor with no political vision and no clout outside of Arkansas, has entered the contest just to suggest that we should all be a little cheerier as we ship off American workers’ wages to fund the bloodbath in Ukraine.
Vivek Ramaswamy, a little-known entrepreneur with some populist inclinations, has been running a Twitter-heavy messaging campaign. Born loser Nikki Haley hopes to bring her uniquely vapid brand of slow-roll liberalism to the White House as its first female and second non-white occupant. Whispers abound about Chris Christie, Chris Sununu, Glenn Youngkin, and Charlie Baker. Mike Pence is in the wings.
Often there is real value in a candidate who knows he will not win, but whose presence on the field will shift the tone or subject of conversation, even pull a frontrunner dramatically toward a particular position. Goldwater did good on this front for Nixon in 1960, and Patrick Buchanan did a similar service twice in the 1990s. It is possible that Ramaswamy understands this as his role this time around.
It is also worth noting that many campaigns for president are actually campaigns for vice president. This is plainly true, for instance, of the 2024 primary field’s two South Carolinians, Nikki Haley and Tim Scott.
Yet neither of these explanations holds for a great many of the other announced and likely contenders. It could be simple grift—nobody would be much surprised to see Liz Cheney roll a protest campaign into a lucrative cable contract—in which case the American people deserve more efficient and more honest use of money, time, and political capital.
Whatever the reasons, it is unlikely the division of the party into fifteen tiny primary camps will do much good for short- and middle-term prospects.
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If there is a silver lining to it all, it’s that Donald Trump will likely have a field day. As the CNN activist Kaitlan Collins reminded us in a recent town hall, Trump the candidate is at his most effective when he’s given an opponent to throw around. Nor does it need to be a fair fight—it’s just as fun to watch Trump run laps around someone like Collins or Cheney as it is to watch him spar with a real evil powerhouse like Hillary.
One of the great benefits of the 2016 primary was the path of destruction Donald Trump tore through the old GOP. One by one, hacks and hopefuls such as Jeb Bush and John Kasich slinked off into obscurity, hardly to be heard from again. More serious opponents such as Marco Rubio and Rand Paul learned lessons from the campaign, and have governed accordingly in the last seven years.
A similar separation of sheep from goats could be well worth the waste and chaos of another crowded primary.