The stakes may be large — and the ratings probaby decent-sized, too — for the first debate of the GOP presidential primary.
But slightly lower, possibly even as low as the Rockies’ bottom-dwelling position in the National League standings, are expectations that anything significant will come of the evening’s work.
For Republicans, and for everyone else really, there can only be one outcome of note, and that would be the unlikely prospect that any of the eight candidates on stage provides even a hint of how to handle the eight-year plague on the party and on the country that has been, and remains, Donald J. Trump.
You think it would be free-falling Ron DeSantis, whose super PAC leaked a debate strategy of defending Trump for not showing up while taking a “sledgehammer” to upstart rival Vivek Ramaswamy, maybe by calling him “Vivek the Fake”? DeSantis, who lately lamented that Trump followers were “listless vessels,” has spent millions of dollars showing that trying to be Trump-like, except even nastier, hasn’t worked.
You think it would be Ramaswamy, the 38-year-old near-billionaire entrepreneur who is inching up in the polls and whose platform is basically to be as off the wall as Trump, but doing so with a smile? This will be Ramaswamy’s introduction to most voters. I wonder what they’ll think of his plan to end America’s involvement in the war in Ukraine by letting Vladimir Putin keep whatever territory he has stolen from Ukraine in return for — yes, this would definitely happen — Russia cutting ties with China.
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You think it would be Chris Christie, the former Trump acolyte who is now running as the anti-Trump candidate, apparently to make amends for his years of sucking up to the former guy by trashing him at every turn? So far Christie is polling at about 3%. And he’s polling far better than Asa Hutchinson and Will Hurd, two other Trump critics.
How about Mike Pence, who says in one breath that Trump tried to force him to violate the Constitution on January 6 and then in another that it’s up to the people to decide whether Trump’s role in the insurrection is disqualifying?
Nice-guy Tim Scott? Trump appointee Nikki Haley?
Look, everyone can read the numbers, and the numbers say that most Republicans believe Trump was a good, maybe even very good president. And it’s worse than that. In a recent CBS poll, 71% of Trump voters said they believe the purveyor of the Big Lie tells them the truth. Yes, the truth. And worse still: Only 63% of these same Trump voters said they believed “friends and family” tell them the truth. Sure, there’s the so-called base, who might as well be part of a Trump cult. But nearly three out of four Trump voters?
The best prediction for the debate I’ve seen comes from the Never Trumpers over at Bulwark who suggest that the only drama will consist of which candidate is most “unctuous” and “self-abasing” in defending Trump, who won’t even be there.
Of course the four-times indicted, twice-impeached Trump won’t be there. Why would he be? He’s leading overwhelmingly in all the polls, by which I mean all the polls. The national polls. The Iowa polls. The New Hampshire polls. For all I know, the AP preseason college football poll.
What could Trump possibly gain by exchanging, uh, weighty insults with Christie in person? He can do that in his prerecorded interview with the unctuous Tucker Carlson. That interview, as you may know, is expected to run at the same time as the debate, which is almost funny given that the prominent ex-Foxie Carlson would be counterprogramming against the Fox News-hosted GOP debate.
Trump won’t show, and yet he’ll still dominate. That’s a sure thing. I mean, unless there’s a Rick Perry-sized gaffe in the debate, the post-game analysis will focus almost exclusively on what anyone said, or didn’t say, about Trump.
And on the very next day, the debate will already be old news and Trump will be once again front and center. On Thursday, Trump is scheduled to be arraigned in Georgia for various alleged crimes against democracy. The prearrangement talk will be about whether there’s a Trump mug shot — I’ll bet against — and also about Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee, who set Trump’s bail at $200,000.
The significant bail amount isn’t about Trump presenting a flight risk. It’s an attempt — almost certainly futile — to keep him from, say, intimidating witnesses. Or judges. Or prosecutors. According to the consent bond order, Trump is also not allowed to make any “direct or indirect threat of any nature against the community or to any property in the community,” including in “posts on social media or reposts of posts.”
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The best bet you can make is that Trump, who has agreed to the bail requirements, will not just ignore them, but also defy them in whatever way he can. He has already suggested that the Fulton County DA, Fani Willis, had an “affair” with a “gang member.” He has already called special counsel Jack Smith “deranged” and a “crackhead.”
This isn’t black and white. Trump is running for president and should be able to defend himself. It’s that pesky First Amendment at play here. On the other hand, no one else in the race — not even DeSantis — is likely to try to intimidate a witness, not unless the witness works for Disney, anyway.
But what’s a judge to do? He’s not going to revoke bond on the former president and put him in jail. I mean, would the marshals have to do battle with the Secret Service to bring him in?
We know what Trump would do. His standing seems to have grown with each indictment. If a Georgia judge went after Trump, he would be able to say he’s the victim, the persecuted one, the defender of freedom of speech.
And, in his telling, he would be doing it all for you. And I wonder how many of those running against him would be running to defend him. We might get a clue in Wednesday’s debate.
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