“I believe that you’ll have a clear idea of what the Pences decide in weeks and not months, and I promise to keep you informed of our decision,” said former Trump vice president Mike
Pence (at The Hill), answering, for probably the millionth time, the ever-present question of whether he intends to toss his proverbial hat into the ring to contend for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.
To be more accurate, it isn’t a “ring” acting as the hat receptacle these days, it’s more like a pit or a chasm, because the bottom of the hole isn’t visible from above and the opening only appears large enough for two competitors, one of which is Pence’s former boss, Donald Trump, and the other the yet-to-say-much Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. The establishment media buzz around Mike primarily concerns the possibly awkward future debate stage set-up with Trump and Pence squaring off against each other, probably saying unkind things about the other, and the hope among Democrats and liberals that the show will devolve into an ugly spectacle that will damage both Republicans – and the Republican Party in general.
Pence, of course, will now certainly face increased scrutiny about his seemingly undying support for America’s role in the Ukraine/Russia war since it was revealed through a huge illegal leak that things might not be going as well over there as the DC establishment and the media had indicated it was.
It’s never a good thing when secret information is exposed to the world, but these are matters that will affect public policy in a deeply profound way. The overseas happenings in that region of the world will be a prime topic of debate in the coming months and next year, especially if the fighting drags on (as it almost certainly will) and we have Washington politicians continuing to wear Ukraine flag pins on their lapels – and following Joe Biden’s lead by sending tens of billions of dollars’ worth in bombs and aid to the blighted non-NATO ally.
Few would dispute that Pence is a good man and he has proved throughout his career in politics that his conservative social views are sincere, yet he’s lagging in the pre-race GOP polls and it’s hard to envision which running “lane” he could occupy.
It’s not that Pence lacks stature, it’s just that right now, almost all the talk involves Trump and DeSantis. Is this destined to change? In a piece titled “The Republican presidential stature gap”, Byron York wrote last week at the Washington Examiner:
“Judging by resumes alone, several Republican candidates are well qualified to run for president. Pence is at the top of that list, having served as vice president, governor, and member of the House. Haley is also highly qualified, having been a governor and ambassador to the U.N. DeSantis has been a governor and member of the House, as has Hutchinson. Pompeo was a member of the House and then CIA director and then secretary of state. That is a lot of experience. But none has been president, and Trump has...
“Trump supporters do not appear worried by the fact that he will be 78 years old on inauguration day 2025 and 82 at the end of his term — the same age Joe Biden was when many of them said, with good reason, that Biden was too old to be president…
“[Y]ou have the current level of support for Trump and the enormous gap in the polls between Trump and the rest of the Republican field. Yes, there are a significant number of Republicans who appreciate what Trump did in office but would like to see the party move on to a new leader. But for many, many Republicans, the stature gap between Trump and the rest of the field, accomplished as those other candidates are, is, at this point in the campaign, insurmountable.”
No question, the stature thing must be concerning to anyone other than Trump and DeSantis if they’re mulling over a presidential run. In his piece, York mentioned that Senator Tim Scott announced (last week) that he’s formed an exploratory committee. So, what once was a big mystery – whether anyone would challenge Trump – it now seems there will be more than enough hopefuls to fill up a debate card.
There might even be sufficient bodies to plan a second “cocktail hour-type” debate to allow space and time for the lesser-known candidates to at least show up in finely tailored business attire and face questions from some media hack on how they would change the world if given the power.
But there’s little doubt that all eyes would remain on Trump and DeSantis, and should there be an undercard forum, show attendees will wait for the main event as though twiddling their thumbs through a warm-up band waiting for the guy or gal or group that they paid all that money to come and see and listen to in the first place.
In truth, there probably isn’t a single thing the lower polling competitors could say or do to get themselves noticed in such an environment. Carly Fiorina made the leap in 2015-16 because she’s a she and, as a non-office holder, offered business world experience that appealed to the section of primary voters who want change, change, change and didn’t care as much about what form it took.
There could be a similar dynamic this year, though the “change” people already have a very attractive alternative in DeSantis, a man who many know through brief three-minute coverage blurbs (of one of his many accomplishments) on the news but haven’t seen in hours-long debates with other notables vying for attention.
Making a “splash” is a rare feat in TV debates, mainly because the questions are usually slanted and the answers obvious, which provides the perfect opportunity for the poll leaders to ignore them and just talk about whatever they want to speak on. Trump was one of the few candidates who usually stuck to whatever was asked, which was refreshing and won some folks over.
The 2020 Democrat debates were almost a complete waste of time. Does anyone remember anything from any of them? I do recall former Congresswoman (and now ex-Democrat) Tulsi Gabbard’s rhetorical beat-down of the empty-pant suited Kamala Harris. Not only is cackling Kamala dumb as a brick, she does a horrible job of hiding her feelings on camera. Did that look like a person you wanted to entrust executive power with? But it didn’t help Gabbard much, did it?
For the Republicans, Ron Paul (in 2008 and 2012) got himself noticed through his blunt honesty and open willingness to confront the Washington foreign policy establishment’s fondness for forever wars. Paul was different – and we started seeing a healthy number of “Ron Paul” bumper stickers because of it. And his crowds were impressive for someone whose poll figures never rose above a certain point.
But the “stature gap” is almost impossible to fill, regardless. Bernie Sanders accomplished it in 2016, when, squaring off with habitual liar Hillary Clinton, “The Bern” was a refreshing (if loud and crazy) alternative to the eternal B.S. from the Democrat establishment. Sanders had Hillary one-on-one in what was thought to be a non-contested primary, so an empty lectern might’ve garnered a third of the vote against so heinous a person as Crooked Hillary.
Republicans have had their share of curious candidate characters over the years (I always enjoyed the late Herman Cain’s attempts to explain his 9-9-9 tax proposal), but the “outsiders” rarely made a lasting impact before Trump. The debates offer their lone chances to breakout, and it’s an uphill climb to distinguish oneself from the others in such limited occasions.
If you don’t believe it, ask former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who went from poll contender to out of the race within the span of two debates because Elizabeth “Pocahontas” Warren made him look like a sexist hypocrite. (The back-and-forth over Democrat views of non-disclosure agreements.)
As York mentioned in his piece, several of the Republican candidates (or would be candidates) appear suitable to be president, but they’ll face a heck of a challenge in getting anyone to listen to them. One exception could be Vivek Ramaswamy (assuming his poll standing qualifies him to take part in a debate), who possesses an intellectual gift and talent for phrasing arguments concisely and memorably.
DeSantis’s main task will be to fit all of his accomplishments into a narrow window as well as presenting himself as someone who is, for lack of a better way to put it, “interesting” enough to assume the Oval Office without being widely known.
Some DeSantis backers fear the Florida Governor will share a similar fate to Wisconsin’s Scott Walker (in 2016) unless he can stand next to Trump on a debate stage and make the case for change without sounding scripted and robotic. Debates are like political beauty contests where contestants only get a few chances to make an impression. Stature is everything.
We’ll find out in the coming months whether the “stature gap” is fillable for the non-Trump candidates in the 2024 GOP presidential field. Each of them knows going into the debates that they can’t hope to match Trump’s celebrity appeal, so they’ll need to find a way to draw focus without looking small besides the former president. It’s no easy chore, but politics ain’t bean bag.
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