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And Some Further Notes About the Republicans
Hello, and welcome to the 2024 presidential campaign. It begins this week, after several months of shifting and shuffling and posturing to little effect by the Republicans candidates…and quiet hand-wringing by Democrats stuck with a sadly unpopular Old Joe. There will be a Republican debate this week. There is an Iowa poll today, conducted by the legendary Ann Selzer, who usually knows what she’s doing.
Let’s talk about the poll first.
The survey, conducted by The Des Moines Register, NBC News and Mediacom before and after Mr. Trump’s latest indictment in Georgia, found that 42 percent of Republican voters in the state planned to support Mr. Trump, who held a lead of 23 percentage points over Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, with 19 percent support. In third place was Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, with 9 percent.
Not much new there, you say. The Times/Siena poll had similar results a few weeks ago. The most important number: 42% for Trump, which is less than 50%. A majority of Iowa Republicans don’t want him to win the nomination. And this, too, farther down: Ramaswamy 4, Haley 6, Pence 6, Christie 5, Burgum 2. This is a classic Iowa splatter pattern. The candidates are making themselves known, winning tiny clutches of supporters (note that Chris Christie who isn’t even campaigning in Iowa has 5%). This will change; the numbers will bloat and collapse and shimmy. The question is whether support will congeal around a true Trump alternative. Knowing Iowans, I can guarantee the following: they will change their minds several times between now and the magic night. Iowa is one place where there are second and third lives in politics. A debate performance might do wonders, for good or ill (see below). A single ad (Dick Gephardt in 1988). Just hanging around a lot (Rick Santorum in 2012). An excellent ground game (Barack Obama in 2008). There are many paths to deep-fried nirvana.
Indeed, Iowa’s antic volatility mitigates against the scenario New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu floated in the Times today: if Trump is to be beaten, candidates are going to have to start dropping out soon and support the most likely Trump alternative. That almost never happens. Lightning can strike in Iowa, and often has. A candidate like, say, Mike Pence is thinking: all my Christian brothers and sisters are going to come to their senses at some point and jump off the antichrist train. All I need is to be slow and steady. (If I remember correctly, Gephardt distributed little plastic turtles in one of his campaigns.) Any human delusional enough to see themselves as President of the United States—I’m looking at you Asa Hutchinson—is delusional enough to hang on until the votes are cast, unless the money runs out. Any human who sees this as a Buttigieg moment—if I do well enough, I’ll get a nice cabinet job—will wait for a “better-than-expected.”
But we shouldn't forget another mitigating factor: Top down fly-bys often flop in Iowa. Trump is running that way this time, as he did last time, when he lost to the gracious and charming Ted Cruz. You gotta be in it to win it. You gotta flip center-cut pork chops at the fair and sit at kitchen tables. Ronald Reagan found this out the hard way in 1980. (George H.W. Bush beat him and parlayed that into the vice presidency.) This also applies to the next item…
The Debate. There may be fireworks. There may not be. Most debates are boring, especially early ones. But you’ve got to participate (another lesson Reagan learned early on). Smart candidates state their cases, test the field, hang back and counter-punch; desperation is flop-sweat, easily perceived by voters. Pre-cooked zingers are usually too obvious to work, and not nearly as clever as your consultants think they are. Think Kamala Harris in 2020, trying to take on Joe Biden about forced busing. (All downhill from there for Kamala, who appeared to be debating on roller skates, wobbling this way and that.) Trump’s strength in this format is that nothing ever seems pre-cooked. That is why his cult worships him. They actually believe this fabulously extravagant liar is a truth-teller because he doesn't sound like a politician. (Hat tip: Charlie Sykes Morning Shots) Which is another reason why his apparent decision to skip the Fox debate is so questionable. Now he’s in a sheer numbers game: If his Tucker Carlson interview on an obscure platform doesn’t crush the Republican debate on Wednesday night, Trump loses. (Unless Tucker gets tough, and succeeds in routing him, in which case, Trump loses.)
The Biggest Loser. I’m not sure this has ever happened before, but Ron DeSantis already has lost the Republican debate. The astonishing leak of his debate talking points last week—does Putin have an operative in his campaign?—will make anything he does on stage seem pre-cooked, especially if he attacks Ramaswamy and defends Trump, as suggested. Except for one thing: The talking points are so chuckleheaded that they may be a deliberate disinformation leak. Attack Ramaswamy? Perhaps we will be surprised and delighted by a brand new charming and gracious DeSantis. But…nahhh. Don’t think so.
And Speaking of DeSantis: You wonder about his ability to successfully attack anybody. Calling Trump supporters “listless vessels” is not only lame, but inaccurate. Trumpers are anything but listless. Rabid, yes. Hydrophobic, if you want to be technical. Even the “vessels” part is inept: too passive. Before Trump, this constituency was an unexploded cluster bomb. Their explosive potential has not diminished. They need to be deactivated somehow, their angry wires snipped. We need the political equivalent of a bomb disposal squad. Or maybe just a Spin Doctor who can perform a figurative lobotomy on the Trump body politic. My hopes for the latter are minimal. The cathartic anti-Trump moment has to be spontaneous. And it can’t just be a gotcha one-liner. It needs to be serious; it needs to cut Donald at his phony core and leave him spluttering. It could have been Hillary Clinton in that 2016 debate where Trump appeared to be stalking her. If she had turned on him and said, “Donald, what on earth are you doing?” the world might be a saner place today.
And Speaking of Donald. Last week, I suggested ridicule as a weapon Democrats might use against him…and then, like any squishy moderate, I began to have second thoughts. I mean, if I want to be taken seriously as a card-carrying pundit, I can’t go around suggesting that some interviewer—are you there, Tucker?—ask him about the Orange Jaundice, or whatever citric affliction it is, affecting his face. I can’t succumb to my lighter side, my inner Hunter Thompson; I can’t be carefree with the future of the Republic at stake. And then, in a piece about Trump’s love-horror relationship with Fox, The Donald himself says this:
They purposely show the absolutely worst pictures of me, especially the big ‘orange’ one with my chin pulled way back. They think they are getting away with something, they’re not.
Really: this is a child speaking. And we are acting like permissive parents. Some righteous church-going elder has to give him a good spanking upside his rump. Part of me still believes the politician best equipped to do this is Mike Pence, especially if he wants to live up to the “too honest” merch he’s been distributing.
Another Baby: I’ve written before that I considered Rudy Giuliani a very good mayor of New York. Up to a point. I do not know when or why he became an industrial-strength nutter, but he certainly is one now—and a broke one, too, having been stiffed by his client, Mr. Trump. How crashingly naive is that? It was an open secret, or perhaps just a credible myth, that lawyers representing Mr. Trump in New York used to tack on a 25% surcharge front up because they assumed he would stiff them down the road. He stiffed everybody; it was his modus vivendi. Giuliani had to have known this. But then, Rudy’s embarrassments and lies and slanders, and just plain old Borat-patsy behavior, have been so flagrant in recent years that you really have to wonder if some form of toxic dementia has set in. There is nothing to be so desired as Trump’s comeuppance, but Giuliani’s is a close second.
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