If you’ve watched, read or heard national political reporters and pundits over the past couple of years, you’ve almost certainly seen them all-but rubbing their hands in anticipation of questioning Republican candidates for the 2024 nomination.
They aren’t excited about queries on inflation, or Ukraine, or the debt, or the border, or crime. They’re all a-twitter (pun certainly intended) over getting to ask this question, in front of as large an audience as possible:
"Did Donald Trump lose the 2020 election?"
The question is viewed as a can’t-miss by the press: humiliating Republican candidates who answer in the negative as too afraid to cross Trump, enraging the hard-core Trumper base against anyone who says “yes,” and opening the floodgates for untold hours of gleeful on-air mockery from media figures all too happy to continue poisoning the electoral well for the GOP.
Any candidate who is seriously in this race had better have an answer ready, and it had better be one that the electorate at large can nod along with in agreement.
To be more specific, they had better be ready, willing and able to say, "Yes."
Any candidate worried about offending Trump’s hard-core fan club with that answer is in the wrong race.
You can’t get those votes, or at least not enough of them to spend time and capital getting wobbly over. Your job isn’t to mollify a hostile minority of the party in the primaries, it’s to generate enough support outside of "Trump or nobody!" to overwhelm them.
You also shouldn’t be worried about Trumpian dead-enders staying home in the general. Yes, some of them will do just that, but not all of them.
More importantly, an awful lot of Republicans either didn’t vote for President at all or voted for an opponent or a write-in the last two elections, and a whole lot more formerly GOP-leaning suburban independents switched parties entirely thanks to Trump. Beat him and you get the vast majority of their number in your corner in November.
Joe Biden is the most unpopular president since, well, Donald Trump. Those independents do not like him, don’t think he should run for re-election, and barring the presence of an opposing nominee on the ballot whom they like even less—Trump—they do not want to vote for him. They will more than make up for the soreheads (and if you believe they won’t, again, why are you bothering to run at all?).
For any candidate who actually wants to win the nomination and the general election, this is the kind of answer they’ll need to give:
"Of course he lost."
"As a sitting president with a strong economy, he somehow found a way to lose to a senile, doddering old fool who spent the election hiding in his basement. Donald Trump certainly did lose to Joe Biden, and he lost because he can’t control his own mouth."
"I was as happy as anybody on election night in 2016. I thank God every day that Hillary Clinton never became president. But since that night Donald Trump has lost and lost and lost, and he will keep losing if given the chance."
"He lost the Congress in a massive midterm landslide, when he was too undisciplined to run on a strong economy."
"He lost re-election to Joe Biden, a guy who’s been the punchline of jokes since the 1970’s."
"He acted like a toddler having a tantrum over losing, gave the party a black eye that it will take decades to get over, and also lost two Senate seats in Georgia by telling Republicans not to vote in the run-off."
"And just two years ago, he cost us the Senate again by endorsing weak candidates for no better reason than they were on television and sucked up to him."
“That is more than enough losing. Donald Trump has had his chances, again and again and again. He doesn’t deserve another. He’s the only person on this stage who can’t beat Joe Biden.
"And we know that because he lost to the guy already."
"Yes, Donald Trump lost the 2020 election. America can’t afford for him to lose again."
That’s tough stuff. It’ll send Trump’s minions online and in the Trump-friendly conservative media into a tizzy. But unless you’re willing to lay that out there, you will not get a vote from the majority of the electorate that is not going to tolerate more hemming and hawing about 2020.
Trump lost. If you’re not willing to say that, to his face, why are you running?