One month from today, it all starts – that being the citizen voting for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
You’re forgiven if you thought the race has been going on forever, or basically ever since former president Donald Trump traveled to Florida on Joe Biden’s Inauguration Day in 2021. For it was at that time that pundits, Trump haters, Never Trumpers, Democrats (same things) and virtually everyone else began speculating on what would happen next in the topsy-turvy world of Trump politics, where down is up, up is down, and sideways is well, sideways.
Who can forget the scene as Trump and former first lady Melania exited Air Force One, probably for the final time on that day, with the world seemingly breathing a sigh of relief that the source of so much establishment media-fanned strife and controversy had removed himself from Washington. As Joe Biden descended the stairs before taking his oath, all of the DC establishment was present to celebrate the elites’ resumption of power.
Now, nearly three years later, Trump appears poised to make a return to the capital city, and not just to visit old friends or to make a speech. The Iowa Caucuses are set for January 15th, a mere 31 days from today. Back in 2021, it’s safe to say not many people figured Trump would be on the ballot when the cycle came around and Iowa kicked off the process once again. But he will be, joined by a handful of “other” candidates hoping to put an end to the Trump story.
A lot can happen in those days in between. Political miracles don’t happen every day, but the establishment news media will be devoting a healthy chunk of time to the contest, hoping against hope to stimulate some sort of horserace to breathe life into the normally exciting presidential nominating season, which lacks spark on either side of the Republican/Democrat divide.
For the GOP, the race is for second place. Towards that end, a couple of the major establishment networks have scheduled additional “debates” for the Republican competitors. But the candidates themselves aren’t necessarily going along with it. In an article titled “Debatable: DeSantis Hits Haley for Not Accepting CNN Invitation”, Philip Wegmann reported at Real Clear Politics earlier this week:
“[T]here is only one debate currently on the calendar before the Iowa caucuses, a contest hosted by CNN, and Haley has not said whether she will attend. ‘Since the RNC pulled out of the debates, many new offers have come in. We look forward to debating in Iowa and continuing to show voters why Nikki is the best candidate to retire Joe Biden and save our country,’ Olivia Perez-Cubas, a spokeswoman for Haley, told RealClearPolitics…
“The candidate happy to debate anyone? That is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. He was quick to accept CNN’s invitation to debate in both Iowa and New Hampshire. And after he mixed it up with California Gov. Gavin Newsom during a Fox News exhibition, the DeSantis campaign called out Haley for not immediately agreeing to appear on stage again...
“… The RNC exit created an undeniable vacuum as television networks now scramble to set up new contests and book venues. News that CNN would host a debate at St. Anselm in New Hampshire even caught the college by surprise. Administrators said they were unaware that the event would take place. For now, it isn’t clear who will show up, either.”
Some of us, myself among them, figured the Tuscaloosa forum last week was going to be the last of its kind, a fitting swansong and conclusion to what was the most bizarre presidential primary debate calendar of all time. The fact that Trump declared early on that he wouldn’t be taking part – in any of the “official” events – lent a strange aura to them, like something was missing in every instance, from the get-go.
In the past, debate organizers have tried to make up for the absence of a prominent candidate by setting up empty lecterns or seats at the table, but the gestures looked stupid after a minute or two and basically just detracted from the discussion. No such “stunts” occurred this year, however, but Trump’s not being there was unmistakably noteworthy.
The various debate moderators have tried to “include” Trump in the discussions by inserting questions or whole segments about him into the line-up only to have the candidates simply repeat the same lines they’d offered for months prior. Remember how Chris Christie threatened to start calling Trump “Donald Duck” if the frontrunner didn’t come out from wherever he was hiding to stand on the same stage as the also-ran candidates?
As though Trump would care about such things. Trump merely went about his business and planned his appearances like there wasn’t anything going on in a distant location with “DeSanctimonious” and “Birdbrain” taking turns playing to the TV audience. Haley (supposedly) used debate performances to improve her standing in the early states, though she definitely wouldn’t have won additional friends after her Alabama fiasco a little over a week ago.
Lots has been said and written about debate formats over the years, how they’re “beauty contests” or merely platforms for establishment media providers to make Republicans look ludicrous. I don’t recall too many “show of hands” questions this year, and I don’t think there was any talk of who believes in evolution (or some other esoteric subject), but one minute or 90-second answers don’t do a whole lot to persuade Americans that said candidate could fix the swamp using abbreviated soundbites to articulate grand strategies.
Gov. Ron DeSantis in particular was limited by such artificial curtailing. Why? Because DeSantis arguably had the most to say in terms of spelling out accomplishments. There are simply too many for the mid-forties Floridian to list and explain before the folks at home start rolling their eyes and seeing if there’s something more stimulating on another channel. So-called “debates” are perfect for has-been candidates – like Haley and Christie – whose most recognizable moments were long ago.
Who, other than the citizens of South Carolina and New Jersey, even remember when Nikki and Chris were governors there? The “hot” issues were different back then, too. How big was “climate change” in the Palmetto State when Haley called the shots? And, of course, abortion was still controlled by the Roe v. Wade precedent, so it didn’t really matter – as much – what a governor thought or did on the topic.
Vivek Ramaswamy, in many observers’ estimations, was excellent in the current debate format. But his lack of political experience or verifiable record subtracted from his ideas, since just about anyone with intelligence and a flare for policy could stand behind a lectern and toss out ideas that sounded good but were next to impossible to implement. Ramaswamy’s proposal to get rid of 75 percent of the federal bureaucracy during his first term (or was it in one year?) is a tremendous thought, but is the notion realistic?
Vivek would need to be a dictator to achieve all of these improvements immediately.
Trump, of course, would’ve been the only one at the events with real accountability in what he advocated for. But the others, particularly Christie and Haley, would’ve just ignored Trump’s best achievements to mimic Liz Cheney and dwell on the “damage” from January 6, 2021. These aren’t things that Republican voters seem to care about, but the media loves it.
It was smart for Trump to stay away, and voters appear to be doing just fine with his decision to do so.
As far as the CNN debate(s) (one in Iowa and one in New Hampshire) go, what’s the point of a candidate attending them? Yes, anyone who goes and subjects themselves to a couple hours’ worth of warmed over woke-ness from Wolf Blitzer or Dana Bash stands to earn a small additional bit of praise from the voters who bothered to tune-in. And Chris Christie will likely participate just for the free buffet and dessert sweets the network will cater on the evening. But there’s absolutely zero chance Trump would devote time and campaign resources for the prospect of so little return.
CNN (and ABC, which has also announced a “debate”) will increase their audience sizes for those nights, which is obviously what they’re after. The CNN brains couldn’t care less whether they help Republicans make up their minds or not. And it may turn into a bash-Trump affair, which will make the networks’ viewer base happy.
There is also some benefit to offering an event so close to election (or caucus) day, since there will be some miniscule slice of the electorate who hasn’t paid attention and is leaving their choice to the last moment. Will this eat into Trump’s lead? Here’s thinking a CNN debate won’t do much at all, since the voters who’ve already chosen Trump are firm in their convictions, and, just like the other “debates”, weren’t going to change their minds based on a “performance” in a last-minute TV event.
2024 isn’t like 2016, where the outcome of the early voting states was very much in doubt up until the last hours, with Ted Cruz surging in Iowa and Marco Rubio vying for the establishment lane being vacated by the all-but disappearing Jeb Bush. The debates coming in the final days back then were very consequential. And memorable. That simply isn’t possible in this cycle.
With the Iowa caucuses now only a month away, the 2024 Republican candidates and their staffs will be working overtime to maximize turnout of their supporters when the moment arrives. Whether or not there are additional unofficial debates offered by CNN or ABC is mostly irrelevant at this point. Donald Trump still controls the direction of the party; all the rest is extraneous noise.
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