Here is where the Old Contrarian (me) seeks to diminish the importance of what Old Yeller (not the 1956 children’s book, but the 45th president of the United States) did the other day by traveling to Iowa and proclaiming that the 2020 election was “rigged” and that Washington Democrats are taking the country “to the brink of ruin.”
The conventional wisdom is that Donald J. Trump’s visit to the state that holds the first political test of the 2024 election is freighted with hints about the biggest mystery in American political life: Will Mr. Trump try to become the 47th president and thus the only chief executive besides Grover Cleveland to serve nonconsecutive White House terms?
The argument goes like this: Mr. Trump is a shrewd practitioner of the political arts and his trip to Des Moines proves he is positioning himself to win the caucuses that he lost by a small margin in 2016 to Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, his onetime mortal enemy now transformed into one of his biggest congressional allies.
Not quite right. Mr. Trump is chasing crowds now, not votes, and a state that gave him an eight-point bulge almost exactly a year ago is at once competitive enough (it’s not Mississippi, where his margin was double Iowa’s) to make his appearance credible and sophisticated enough (the state university has an institution called the Center for the Book) to force the few Iowans who aren’t transfixed by the Hawkeyes’ No. 2 rating in the college football polls to take notice.
One other point: Mr. Trump needn’t worry about Iowa’s caucuses should he decide to run a third time. He would easily sweep the caucuses from Dubuque in the east to Council Bluffs in the west and from Ottumwa in the south to Mason City in the north and then almost certainly join Grover Cleveland, William Jennings Bryan, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Richard M. Nixon as the only figures to win more than two major-party presidential nominations.
The nomination is his for the taking. You can make a wager with the major American sports books on Sunday’s NFL games, but you can’t do so on the election. However, you can in Great Britain, where Mr. Trump’s odds for winning the White House are even with Vice President Kamala Harris’. The two are tied for second place.
But Mr. Trump is such a colossus on the Republican landscape that trips like his to Iowa, and remarks like his about Mr. Biden, have effectively frozen the 2024 GOP contest.
Several Republicans — all with more traditional resumes than Mr. Trump’s, unless you count four years as president, which cannot be discounted — are drooling at the starting gate, bunched together but yearning to set themselves apart.
Some, like Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, were major players in the effort to deny Mr. Biden the presidency. Others, like Mr. Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, have fought on the farmlands of Iowa before and are itching for a second outing. Four, like Greg Abbott of Texas, Ron DeSantis of Florida, Kristi Noem of South Dakota and Nikki Haley, know that 27 of the country’s presidents once served as chief executives of their state. One, Mike Pompeo, served as secretary of state for six presidents, a steppingstone to the White House.
Plus, of course, there is former Vice President Mike Pence, whose profile has changed with the color of the leaves this season. He has been the dope and coward who refused to deliver the presidency to the rightful owner on Jan. 6 and, at the same time, the sentinel of probity and courage who refused to deliver the presidency to the man who lost at the polls but sought to prevail on Capitol Hill. Then he was the man who sidled back up to the president, followed by the political figure who asserted that he and Mr. Trump will never agree to what happened the day the gallows were set up to hang him, followed by the loyal soldier who strained to figure out a way to help his boss any way he could, only to be talked out of it by another former vice president, Dan Quayle.
That’s five people in one — an improvement, you might say, on the Wrigley’s famous “Double Pleasure” television ad from 1986 with an ominous whisper of Shakespeare’s “Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble.”
But there are other possibilities. Republican nominations in recent years have included members of the clergy and of the college of cardinals of business.
Unknowns can become known in an instant if they mount imaginative candidates. A year into his governorship, no one considered Jimmy Carter of Georgia a presidential possibility. And at this juncture in the 2008 race, Barack Obama was an obscure freshman senator whose remarks were noticed by almost no one, even when he gave a speech asserting, “We simply cannot allow people to pour into the United States undetected, undocumented, unchecked and circumventing the line of people who are waiting patiently, diligently and lawfully to become immigrants in this country.” (Mr. Trump later unearthed the statement, signaling his agreement “100%.”)
But what is a putative presidential candidate to do while Mr. Trump tramps over to Iowa?
The first rule: Don’t offend Mr. Trump. The second: Emphasize voting irregularities in 2020 rather than outright asserting that the election was stolen; this requires a tricky political pas de deux that includes strong support for allowing every vote to count, but not to allow them to count twice or to allow the dead to vote. Third: Make it clear that if Mr. Trump wants the nomination, no one should stand in his way.
Mr. Pence has a polished default position, which he expressed to Sean Hannity on Fox News earlier this month: “It was a dark day at our Capitol building, but we moved past it, we finished the work.” Ms. Haley, who once said that Mr. Trump had lost his credibility, now views the former president more charitably, citing “a strong legacy from his administration” and emphasizing his ability “to get strong people elected” more than his more colorful characteristics.
Meanwhile, the Des Moines airport is open. Mr. Pence, Ms. Haley, Mr. Pompeo, Mr. Cotton and Ms. Noem already have arrived. Other frequent flyers, hopes in hand, are booking their passage now.
(David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)