Donald Trump is a defeated one-term president who cost the Republican party both houses of Congress. Yet three-quarters of Republicans want him to again run in 2024, polling that has other aspirants keeping their heads well down.
Joe Biden is politically vulnerable, his job approval underwater, his coalition fraying. He could meet the same fate as Trump – sans residual enthusiasm.
The next Republican nominee could easily be the next president. Against this backdrop, David Drucker’s Baedeker to the current crop of wannabes is a perfectly timed and well-informed contribution.
As senior political correspondent for the Washington Examiner, a conservative paper, he knows of whom and what he writes. Better yet, he has access. In Trump’s Shadow is chock-full of tidbits and trivia, the stuff on which political junkies and journalists thrive.
Drucker names an array of Republican presidential hopefuls, among them long-shots such as the Texas governor, Greg Abbott; the Nebraska senator Ben Sasse; and Trump’s last national security adviser, Robert O’Brien.
Drucker delivers deeper dives on former vice-president Mike Pence; the Florida senator Marco Rubio and governor, Ron DeSantis; Nikki Haley, Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations; the Arkansas senator Tom Cotton; and the governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan. In doing so, he covers the Republican ideological spectrum.
Drucker also reports on an interview with Trump at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida resort and retreat. Not surprisingly, Trump has kind words for Mike Pompeo, his former secretary of state; contempt for Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader; and disdain for Liz Cheney, the congresswoman from Wyoming and daughter of former vice-president Dick Cheney who turned against Trump over the Capitol riot.
“She’s a psycho,” says the very stable genius.
Trump has, however, had time to grow appreciative of “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz, the Texas senator whose father and wife Trump attacked viciously during the primaries in 2016.
Amid such Trumpian cacophony, Drucker reminds us of just who within the GOP is laying groundwork for runs for the White House, and how realistic their hopes might be. It is a tricky and contorting dance. But though Trump can dominate coverage, he cannot completely extinguish ambitions. Drucker pulls back the curtain on other figures’ schemes, dreams – and hard political infrastructure.
Take Pence. Once a congressman from Indiana, then its governor, he began preparing for the top step on the ladder the moment he was elected Trump’s VP. Pence established a separate political operation within the White House and a fundraising Pac of his own, the Great America Committee. He used it to pay expenses while stumping for Republicans around and across the country.
Trump was fine with that. It meant Pence would not look to his boss to pay his travel bills. The veep had a stash of his own.
Since leaving office, Pence has also launched Advancing American Freedom, a political non-profit which touts “conservative values and policy proposals”. More importantly, it is stocked with Trump loyalists. Kellyanne Conway, the mother of “alternative facts”. Larry Kudlow, chief White House economic adviser. Newt Gingrich, once speaker of the House, a colleague on the right. All are there.
Drucker also sheds light on Pence’s defiance of Trump and service to the republic, in the aftermath of a defeat by Biden which Trump sought to overturn with lies about electoral fraud. As a traditional conservative, Drucker writes, Pence was skeptical of the power of the vice-president to unilaterally steal an election. Before he certified results, he sought a legal opinion, which debunked Trump’s false claim that he could.
When Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol, on 6 January, some chanted “Hang Mike Pence”. Others erected a makeshift gallows. Pence was forced to hide, but he refused to leave.
Ten months on, Team Pence seems not to know what to think or say. It was “a dark day in the history of the US Capitol”, Drucker records Pence telling one crowd. But Pence later told Fox News “the media wants to distract from the Biden administration’s failed agenda by focusing on one day in January”.
The political momentum is clear. Pence’s own brother, a congressman from Indiana, voted against certifying the election. This week, Greg Pence was the only no-show in the House on the vote to hold Steve Bannon in contempt for defying the 6 January committee. Two-thirds of Republicans deny that the Capitol riot was an attack on the government. The right has a new Lost Cause.
Drucker also does justice to Rubio, capturing the senator’s tendency to “chase the latest shiny object”, be it immigration reform in 2013 or police reform after the murder of George Floyd. He’s “the butterfly”, according to one Republican strategist.
“Marco goes to every brightly colored flower and sticks his nose right in the middle of it, [then] takes a little bit of honey and stands in front of it to see if anyone’s looking at the flower.”
In 2016, Rubio won three Republican nominating contests but was battered by Trump in his home state, losing the Florida primary by nearly 20 points. Before 2024, he will face a stern Senate challenge from Val Demings, an African American ex-cop and impeachment floor manager.
Demings has out-raised Rubio recently but Rubio has $3m more in the bank. This, remember, is a politician who once purportedly told a friend: “I can call up a lobbyist at four in the morning, and he’ll meet me anywhere with a bag of $40,000 in cash.”
He also has a history of credit card problems. Imagine what a President Rubio might do with the national debt.
If nothing else, Drucker reminds us that though Trump rules Red America, like rust, ambition never sleeps. The starter’s flag on the race for the Republican nomination has yet to fall. In Trump’s Shadow is fine preparatory reading.
In Trump’s Shadow is published in the US by Twelve