Editor’s Note: Geoff Duncan, a CNN political contributor and Republican, served as Georgia’s lieutenant governor from 2019 to 2023. He is a former professional baseball player and the author of “GOP 2.0: How the 2020 Election Can Lead to a Better Way Forward for America’s Conservative Party.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
There’s no other way to slice it: Donald Trump is the clear GOP White House frontrunner for 2024. His reelection is not out of the question, given President Joe Biden’s dreadful showing in recent opinion polls.
The political world was rocked by the recent Washington Post/ABC News poll pegging Biden’s approval rating at a jaw-dropping 36%, a new low point for his presidency. Only 32% of respondents believe the 80-year-old incumbent has the “mental sharpness” for a second term.
Even polls that haven’t been quite as dire for Biden, like CNN’s Poll of Polls, showed his average approval at 40%, with 55% disapproving. At the same time, Trump enjoys a nearly 30-point lead for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, according to the Real Clear Politics average.
And yet, two things can be true at once: The current White House occupant may be ripe for the picking, even as his most likely Republican challenger – a twice-impeached, indicted former president – may be unfit to lead the country again. That’s especially true for one just found legally liable for sexual battery and defamation.
The 2022 election results proved that the GOP cannot simply rely on Biden’s vulnerabilities while ignoring Trump’s. Our platform must extend beyond the personality of the former president, and should focus on the real issues facing this country. It’s an unfortunate reality that many conservatives – including myself – may not like, but must acknowledge.
Against this backdrop, the former president heads to New Hampshire for a prime time town hall on CNN at 8 PM Wednesday at St. Anselm’s College. It is Trump’s second appearance in as many weeks in New Hampshire, the state that lit the match on his march to the nomination in 2016 after a 20-point win.
To my fellow Republicans wondering if the Trump candidacy is an unstoppable freight train, my answer is, it doesn’t have to be. But those who ignore the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them.
Here are three lessons to keep in mind.
First, in the words of former Boston Celtics coach Rick Pitino when asked about his team’s losing streak, “Larry Bird is not walking through that door, fans.”
Applying that concept to the political arena, neither is Ronald Reagan – or any of the other revered, long gone conservative icons. Endless hand-wringing in search of a perfect candidate only emboldens a chaos candidate like Trump.
As the field of contenders coalesces, we must avoid a redux of eight years ago, when 17 candidates duked it out for an ever-shrinking slice of the electoral pie – but never managed to cut into Trump’s share of the votes.
In addition to the former president, there are three declared GOP 2024 contenders and many other Republicans are eyeing the race. But while the field doesn’t have to settle right away, it cannot remain in flux forever. Those who opt not to run should get behind the best viable alternative, preferably before the end of the summer.
The example set by Democrats last presidential election is instructive: Recognizing the rising threat of Vermont socialist Bernie Sanders in 2020, the Democrats fell in line behind a flawed Joe Biden, even after his drubbing in the New Hampshire’s primary. The results speak for themselves.
The second lesson is, prosecute Trump from his right flank with an honest evaluation where he is most vulnerable on conservative issues.
Yes, his conduct around the 2020 election and the January 6 riots at the US Capitol – which just last week led to the convictions of four members of the Proud Boys for seditious conspiracy – will be seen as disqualifying for many voters. And his numerous legal entanglements will give no doubt many other voters pause.
There is, however, a litany of other issues demonstrating that Trump failed to execute a conservative policy agenda when he had the ability to.
The national debt rose nearly $8 trillion dollars under the so-called businessman president. Mexico has yet to fund the wall, and our southern border remains wide open, fueling the surging opioid and fentanyl crisis.
Meanwhile, test scores for American students are dropping at rates not seen in decades. Americans remain rightfully angry at school lockdowns that lasted far too long – and should remember that Trump outsourced many public policy decisions to unelected health figures during the throes of the pandemic. It’s easy to criticize Covid decisions with the benefit of hindsight, but that does not absolve Trump.
Finally, we would do well to remember Trump’s greatest perceived strength: He bills himself as a fighter. Lamentably however, the former president was a fighter not for American families, but for his own personal and political interests.
Conservatives want someone who fights for them – and who can blame them? Inflation is still at 5%, twice the target rate. In response to the spending spree that started under Trump and continued under Biden, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell has raised interest rates 10 times in 11 months inflicting widespread economic pain on Americans.
At the same time, financial institutions are failing by the day, the nation’s largest bank just got bigger under a Biden-blessed takeover. Powell declares the system is “sound and resilient” even with a fiscal cliff looming and our leaders taking cuts to the biggest drivers of spending off the table.
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This economic landscape is tailor-made for a change agent promising to upend the status quo. Trump’s challenge however is that he had his chance. He blew it, and he knows it: That’s the reason he’s balking at the schedule of upcoming Republican debates.
The GOP has lost three consecutive elections with Trump as its de facto leader. The same Washington Post/ABC News poll Republicans are touting because of Biden’s horrible numbers, shows that only 33% of voters calling Trump “honest and trustworthy.”
Conservatives appear not to be ready for a return to the White House of a soon-to-be 77-year-old failed businessman who is facing the prospect of multiple legal investigations.
Republicans need to clean up our own house – and it’s going to take more than abysmal approval numbers by the Democratic incumbent president to make things right.