Donald Trump is not retiring. He’s not disappearing to live the range life and he has no intentions of remaining quiet over the coming months and years. Acknowledging his loss somewhat for the first time from the CPAC stage this weekend was simply a way of paving a golden road heading into 2022 and 2024. Trump still believes he’s the future of the Republican party, even as a one-term defeated president pushing 75 years old. He clearly still has enthusiasm of the CPAC crowd — but straw polls and speeches will not be the deciding factor for Trump in 2024 so much as the success of candidates he backs heading into 2022 in GOP primaries, designed to upset incumbents Trump considers unfavorable.
The CPAC stage also hosted a who’s who of next-gen talent from Republicans, just as it did in 2015. The future may have looked bright for Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz that year, just as it does for Kristi Noem, Tom Cotton and Ron DeSantis in 2021. However there will be no blindsiding this next election. There will be no shock meteoric sweep through the primaries on the backs of an enabling media. In time, Donald Trump will transition from being a kingmaker to an obstacle with his 2024 plans. What’s more, he knows it.
By my count there are nine serious presidential contenders heading into 2024 not named Donald Trump Senior. As mentioned, there is Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota, who had perhaps the most personal touch from the stage this past weekend. There is Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida whose stock is rising faster than anyone else. That leaves Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Josh Hawley, Sen. Ted Cruz, Donald Trump Jr, Nikki Haley and former secretary of state Mike Pompeo. Every single candidate is connected to Donald Trump, or at the very least, Trump-adjacent. Apologies to Maryland governor Larry Hogan and the NeverTrumpers, but there is no lane for them. It doesn’t exist no matter how many times Bill Kristol gets his buddies in the media to push stories on behalf of Hogan or someone like Evan McMullin. NeverTrump will remain a fringe movement.
Trump effectively freezes the entire field of 2024 candidates; several of them will eagerly await to hear of his plans before declaring their own. As entertaining as it might be to see the former president slap his adult son around on a debate stage, it would immediately neutralize any of Don Jr’s future political ambitions. Would Mike Pence, Nikki Haley and Mike Pompeo want to draw Trump’s ire from being administration turncoats? DeSantis and Hawley may decide to sit 2024 out completely, despite DeSantis running away with the CPAC straw poll for anyone not named Trump. Ted Cruz will once again be saddled with the nickname Lyin’ Ted to the cheers of the debate audience and loyal following Trump still commands.
There are a lot of clichés in politics after an election. ‘Wait and see’, ‘I know it’s still early but’, ‘anything can happen between now and then’. There’s truth to all of those: it’s far too early to make any real predictions about 2024 given how much also depends on Joe Biden and/or Kamala Harris. But two things are clear after CPAC: Donald Trump will command the stage for as long as he wants it and, for the second time in eight years, an entire generation of bright and rising talent may find themselves sidelined.