Donald Trump spent the final months of 2022 reeling from electoral setbacks and media disasters. Many of his high-profile endorsements in the midterm elections flopped. His attacks on popular GOP governors in Florida, Virginia, Ohio, and Georgia did little damage to their reputations. His 2024 campaign launch was a snooze. His infamous and inexcusable dinner at Mar-a-Lago with high-profile anti-Semites put him on the political fringe. By the end of last year, Trump appeared to be fading from the national conversation. His chances of winning the Republican nomination seemed to dim.
Now those chances are brightening. Trump continues to dominate in polls of Republicans. He's drawn even with President Biden in head-to-head matchups. He lobbied successfully for Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) to become speaker of the House of Representatives. His loyalists on the House Judiciary, Oversight, and Weaponization of the Federal Government committees will be sure to advance his interests. He's plotting his return to Facebook, Instagram, and possibly Twitter, and his connection with the Republican base remains strong.
Most important of all, Trump's rivals in both the Democratic and Republican parties are repeating the mistakes they made in the run-up to the 2016 election. The Democrats assume that there is no way for Trump to become president, while Republicans believe he will fade from the scene. Their failure to learn from history has made it possible not only for Trump to win the GOP nomination for the third straight time, but to pull another inside straight in the Electoral College and return to the White House. For decades, Trump has said that the political class is corrupt, insular, and incompetent, and that Republican leaders lack guts. Washington is doing its best to prove him right.
Trump's recovery began on January 9, when news broke that classified documents had been found months earlier at a D.C. office President Biden used from 2017 to 2019. Biden, who had called Trump irresponsible and worse when the FBI recovered classified material from Mar-a-Lago last summer, was exposed as a hypocrite. Attorney General Merrick Garland came under intense pressure to appoint a special counsel for Biden, since he already had appointed one to investigate Trump for mishandling classified information and for subverting the last presidential election.
Garland relented on January 12 and tapped U.S. Attorney Robert Hur to lead the inquiry. On January 20, the FBI searched Biden's Wilmington, Del., residence (though not his home in Rehoboth Beach) and unearthed more secret papers. A few days later, former vice president Mike Pence disclosed that classified documents had been found at his house, too.
This chaotic and ridiculous situation is a boon for Trump. Politically, there is no way Garland can indict the sole declared candidate for the presidency in 2024 while exonerating Biden, who's expected to announce his own reelection campaign soon. If Garland were to do so, Trump would portray himself, reasonably, as the victim of a double standard. Biden's boneheaded handling of the documents also reinforces one of Trump's core beliefs: Everyone in politics behaves corruptly, but he alone does so without pretense.
Trump still must worry about separate inquiries, in D.C. and Atlanta, into his conduct after losing the 2020 election. The fight with the National Archives over his papers is a sideshow. If anything, it's Biden who ought to be concerned. The president's changing statements on the subject, and the drip-drip-drip of stories about the material in his possession, raise additional doubts about his honesty and competence.
House Republicans plan to scrutinize the Biden family's influence-peddling business. They are desperate to find a connection between Hunter Biden's laptop from hell and the government intelligence in Joe Biden's garage. Democrats with long memories remember how Hillary Clinton's mishandling of classified information dogged her in 2016. They don't want to go through that mess again.
They may not have a choice. Whether it's the document drama or the looming presidential campaign, history seems to be following a path it traveled once before. Not only has Trump frozen the GOP field, with potential challengers not expected to announce their candidacies for months, if ever. Trump also benefits from the same dynamics that helped him in 2016: His opponents think he will just disappear, a multi-candidate primary gives him an edge, and no Republican wants to attack him directly.
Recently, a few high-profile Republicans have predicted that Trump won't be the GOP nominee. These prognosticators share certain traits: None of them thought Trump would win in 2016, they said Republicans would win big in 2022 (yes, I did too), and they no longer hold elected office precisely because of the changes Trump made to their party. Trump inspires a form of wishful thinking among certain groups of people, a collective illusion that, despite all evidence to the contrary, someday his behavior will change, and he will be content playing golf. Well, it won't, and he's not. The way to thwart Trump is for voters to choose someone else.
That outcome is less likely in a multi-candidate race. In 2016 the non-Trump vote divided three ways among Sens. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) and Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) and then-governor John Kasich (R., Ohio). The fracture allowed Trump to capitalize on the winner-take-all structure of GOP primaries and win significant contests, and eventually the nomination, with a plurality of votes. The same thing is happening in polls today. As Nathaniel Rakich observes at FiveThirtyEight, when pollsters offer Republicans several choices, Trump wins by a huge margin. But, in head-to-head matchups with Florida governor Ron DeSantis, Trump tends to lose.
At this writing, DeSantis presents the biggest obstacle for Trump. He sits atop the field in state-level polls of New Hampshire and South Carolina. He's a proven winner and fundraiser who knows when to pick high-profile cultural battles that endear him to conservatives and the MAGA crew. His crusade against wokeness is a way to unify the party behind a tough and competent executive who hasn't alienated suburban independents in his home state. If nominated, he'd represent a rising generation for change against an 81-year-old incumbent who has been in politics for half a century.
Naturally, other Republicans have begun to attack DeSantis. That's to be expected. No one is entitled to a party's nomination, politics ain't beanbag, and running for president ought to be, and is, an arduous task. Potential GOP candidates are probing for weaknesses in DeSantis's stance on abortion, his hardball tactics with big business, his national appeal, and his personal demeanor. Notice, though, whom these Republicans are not criticizing. His initials are DJT.
As happened seven years ago, Republicans are avoiding Trump either because they believe he will pack up and go home or because they are afraid of incurring his wrath and the animosity of his most devoted supporters. They are falling back into formation as a circular firing squad that hurts everybody but the former president.
The presidential campaign is just beginning. No one knows what lies ahead. The Trump rebound may soon pass and won't come again. There's a sleeper candidate or two out there who will make this race interesting.
For now, though, Democrats and Republicans are gambling that they can behave in 2024 just like they did in 2016, but produce a different result.
You willing to bet?