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Commentary: Can anyone in the GOP run against Trump?

President Trump walks from Marine One upon arrival on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 27, 2017, after spending the weekend at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland.

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John Kasich's bid for the presidency went nowhere in 2016, but he's good at keeping his name out there, and sure enough we're all talking about him again.

Or at least those of us in the media are talking about him. I personally haven't met many people outside of the press or the state of Ohio who think much about him either way, or even know how to pronounce his name. Still, we're going to be hearing it periodically over the next two years as he mulls a 2020 bid, in which he'll probably run as either a Republican or an independent.

It's hard to see him getting to the White House on either track, but it's the former option that will probably propel him nowhere at a faster clip. A Republican primary challenge against Donald Trump will get Kasich a lot of TV appearances. But even if we assume Trump remains unpopular, and probably gets a bit more so over the next couple years, Kasich will still find himself facing down essentially impossible odds.

For one thing, Kasich would be running against Trump as a centrist. Kasich is in many ways quite conservative, particularly on social issues like guns and abortion. However, that's belied by his habit of speaking like a noble Republican character on an Aaron Sorkin show, which no doubt assists in his appeal to the national press, and his discomfort with cutting government assistance programs in Ohio.

So while he's an awkward moderate in some ways, that's the part he's been cast in, and the part he seems eager to play. He'll complain about Trump's tone and his rhetoric, which is the easy path to respectability for a Republican under this president. But Trump's feral performances on the stump are what endeared him to many in the GOP rank-and-file, so attacks on that front are likely to be a non-starter in a Republican primary. Many of their voters like that he sounds like that.

This is a major problem for all the would-be Republican saviors of the Trump era, from Kasich to Ben Sasse to Ted Cruz. Unlike Trump, these are all people who came up within the Party, who learned its ways and more or less earned their promotions. Trump did not. He understood that what the GOP really wants from its leaders is confrontation and rants about perfidious elites. They want entertainment, and he's delivering.

Trump understood all that because he is, at heart, a cynic. The problem Kasich and company have, in part, is that deep down they really believed Republican voters liked hearing highfalutin stuff about the Founders, mediating institutions, personal responsibility, and the joys of an unfettered free market.

Perhaps they once did, but Trump's realization was that by 2016 most Republican voters were as dependent on the government as anyone else. Meanwhile, Republican lifers like Paul Ryan were and are still convinced their voters can be sold on cuts to Medicare. Trump looked at the GOP from without and saw its true and anxious self; meanwhile, the guys on the inside had totally deluded themselves as to what their party was all about.

This raises another question for anyone thinking of mounting a primary challenge against Trump: How does someone get to his right? What does that mean? What does that even look like?

If you're mounting a primary challenge against any incumbent, much less a president, you don't want to run at them from the center – you run at them from the base, where the voters are. So if you're challenging a fellow Republican, you always go at them from the right.

For a long time, this was simple enough. The right of the spectrum meant a belief in small government, cultural conservatism, lower taxes, more guns, etc. Then Trump came along and scrambled the math.

Trump took a deviationist stance during the primaries, particularly on economic issues. He ran as a candidate skeptical of trade, agnostic on low marginal tax rates for the rich, and against reforming entitlement programs.

He also ran with the sound and attitude of a culture warrior, albeit one attuned to the realities of 21st century America. He didn't really talk about Jesus or God's love or anything like that; he didn't need to, because cultural conservatism had become unmoored from orthodox Christianity. The cultural issues they cared most about now – immigration, guns, smug elites – are the ones he focused on.

It would be hard for any candidate to get to Trump's right on most cultural issues. On economic issues, there is quite a bit of room, assuming you want to challenge him as a kind of libertarian who wants to reform entitlements and reduce trade barriers.

But that obscures what has been a major political accomplishment for Trump, which is redefining what Republicanism and conservatism mean in America. Anything Trump says is now broadly understood to be the most allowable right-wing position.

In 2017, and into the foreseeable future, being a conservative Republican tends to mean liking and supporting Trump, regardless of whether the president adopts a philosophically conservative stance.

This is disorienting for Trump's opponents within the GOP, in part because they know they can never get to Trump's right. They know the most conservative position on any issue is understood to be the one that escapes his mouth. Mounds of conservative philosophical tracts can be invalidated and deemed heretical by no more than a Trump tweet.

That's a tragedy for the conservative ideologues who until recently ran the GOP, which is the Party of Trump now. Assuming he runs in 2020, he will be the Republican nominee, because he's the man who speaks in its voters' current voice. 

  • Will Rahn

    Will Rahn is a political correspondent and managing director, politics, for CBS News Digital.