President Donald Trump isn't even trying to be coy anymore.
"It's been an amazing four years," he told a group of guests at a White House Christmas party on Tuesday night. "We are trying to do another four years. Otherwise, I'll see you in four years."
That pretty much says it all -- especially when you consider that there's reporting out there that suggests Trump may well announce his 2024 candidacy on the same day that Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th president of the United States.
And that is an absolute disaster for the Republican Party.
To understand why, look at what happened in the 2020 election, which can be roughly summed up this way:
1) Trump lost
2) House and Senate Republicans drastically overperformed expectations
Going into Election Day, conventional wisdom -- as determined by nonpartisan political handicappers -- was that Democrats were not only poised to gain the three seats they needed to retake the Senate majority but were also likely to make double-digit gains in the House.
Instead, Republicans lost only a single Senate seat (with two runoffs in Georgia still pending) and made their own double-digit gains in the House.
While Trump has sought to claim credit for those gains -- "A lot of Senators and House Members are very happy that I came along," he tweeted on Monday, "Think I'll stick around for awhile!" -- the opposite is actually true, according to some other smart Republican observers.
They argue that what the 2020 election revealed was this: America is still a center-right country. Voters couldn't stomach Trump but they liked the idea of divided government with Republicans having control of some of the levers of government.
Read this way -- and I think it is the right way to read it -- the 2020 election was a rejection of Trump but not of Republicans more broadly. If anything, voters in downballot races embraced Republican candidates even while breaking from Trump. (Republicans' strength in state legislative races affirm this general trend.)
In theory then, if Trump stepped off the stage, Republicans would be in pretty good shape. Sure, they'd have a contested and contentious fight to see who the right person is to represent the party in 2024 but it would, generally speaking, be a fight between politicians who can be fit somewhere into the traditional spectrum.
From Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton on the far right to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan in the center-ish, the party would spend the next few years choosing which brand of Republicanism or conservatism they preferred. But the debate would, largely, be about policy -- immigration, health care etc. -- and tone. It would not be first and foremost about personality.
To be clear: There's no question that for some swing voters, the residual cloud left by Trump to hang over the party would be a problem. The capitulation of the GOP (and its principles) at the altar of Trump's cult of personality over the past four years would still have consequences for plenty of people.
But with Trump not in contention in 2024, the ambitious 2024 candidates could make the "let's leave the past in the past" argument -- focusing instead on traditional GOP messages like small government, lower taxes and national security while casting Democrats as beholden to their liberal extremes.
Which, again, if 2020 is any indication, can and does work!
All of that goes out the window if Trump is in the 2024 race. Trump would be, without question, the clear favorite for the presidential nomination and, as such, would suck up virtually all of the oxygen within the party. Even if somehow he lost, the race would revolve around him. The working dynamic of the contest -- assuming any serious Republicans attempted to challenge him -- would be Trump vs anti-Trump. Any discussion of policy or the future of the Republican Party would be subsumed by what we have had the last four years: One long conversation that can be summed up by "Did you see what he just tweeted?!?!?"
Unfortunately for Republicans, we know where that ends. In a loss at the presidential level. Because while voters seem perfectly comfortable sending Republicans to Congress and their state legislatures, not enough of them feel that same way about Trump.
Which means that if Trump runs in 2024, the Republican Party will be frozen in a sort of stasis -- unable to get beyond a person who they know is not only very unlikely to command a majority of the country's votes in the next presidential election but also who will continue to do damage to the party brand along the way.
What if Trump somehow changes his approach, chastened by his 2020 loss? That will never happen. Not just because Trump has proven time and time again over the last five years that he only has one political gear but also because he will never actually concede he lost this election -- meaning that, in his mind, no adjustments need to be made.
Insanity is, by one definition, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Which, well, is what Republicans will be forced to do if Trump, as he seems set to do, announces another run for president.