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July 19, 2023

In Brief: A Peculiar Primary

The longshots are running generic, predictable, cookie-cutter campaigns, while Donald Trump is his usual erratic, unpredictable, winging-it self.

“All polls showing me leading in the Republican Primary by very substantial numbers,” boasted Donald Trump in setting up the announcement that he expects the Justice Department to indict him again. Indeed, Trump does have a pretty devoted following. So, asks political analyst Jim Geraghty, why do his challengers all seem so afraid to mix things up?

An odd dynamic is at work in the 2024 Republican presidential primary. Some of the candidates who are so far behind, with the least to lose, are campaigning very cautiously and predictably, almost afraid to make waves. Meanwhile, frontrunner Donald Trump, who you would think would have the most to lose, is campaigning with his trademark wild abandon and sudden reversals, throwing caution to the wind.

A slew of candidates entered as underdogs and are offering, at least from my perspective, something of a generic, cookie-cutter GOP agenda. Secure the border. Increase domestic energy production. Cut taxes. Build up the military. Roll back or undo “Bidenomics.” Stop “woke” indoctrination in our schools.

There’s nothing wrong with those agenda items, but they are indistinguishable from what every other Republican candidate is promising. Getting up on stage and pledging to enact those policies doesn’t stand out, and a lot of GOP primary voters have heard it all before.

It seems the non-Trump candidates are still struggling to figure out what the modern Republican presidential-primary voters want. About half the party wants Trump again and doesn’t seem interested in any alternative. The candidates competing for the rest can’t quite figure out whether they should try to emulate Trump, try to be different than Trump, or offer a bit from column A and a bit from column B (and if so, in what proportion and what combination).

Geraghty notes that most of the leading candidates haven’t even yet put an “Issues” section on their campaign websites. He also quotes Henry Barbour, “a committeeman for the Republican National Committee and an informal adviser to Rick Perry’s campaign,” who mused way back in 2015, “We are into an age where it seems like your ability to get yourself on cable news and be a rock star in a reality-TV era matters more than what you’ve accomplished in a state like Texas or New Jersey or Florida. … It’s tough, and it’s not good, but it is reality. And campaigns have to deal with what the voters are looking for.”

Ron DeSantis is shaking up his staff amidst reported trouble gaining traction like many thought he would. Chris Christie is running on the slogan “the truth matters,” but his objective is seemingly only to torpedo Trump. Mike Pence was never going to win over Trump’s supporters who think he’s a traitor for January 6, but he did damage with that “not my concern” moment with Tucker Carlson. Asa Hutchison? He aspires to finish fifth in Iowa. Geraghty says:

Longshot candidates, let me be the one to communicate the hard truth that apparently your campaign staff is afraid to tell you: You’re not going to get very far on your charm and good looks.

He then goes on to marvel at Trump’s Teflon coating.

Trump keeps making decisions that would damage a normal candidate, but that so far have no sign of impacting his popularity. Remember Trump’s dinner with Kanye and Nick Fuentes? Apparently, GOP voters don’t find that worrying. Remember Trump declaring on Truth Social that “A Massive Fraud of this type and magnitude allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution”? There’s no sign that post hurt Trump at all.

Trump called Nevada “disgraceful” and insisted he won the state in 2020. (Here in this dimension, Biden won the state by 33,596 votes, or about 2.4 percentage points.)

He trashed his own former press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany. He blamed Chris Christie for recommending Christopher Wray, Trump’s own appointee to be director of the FBI. He’s argued that disgraced former New York governor Andrew Cuomo handled the pandemic better than his primary rival Ron DeSantis. He’s threatening to skip the debates.

In ordinary politics, these sorts of statements and blame-shifting backfire. …

In fact, Trump remains so erratic that he can switch positions on a dime. For much of the past year, Trump and his supporters have argued that U.S. support for Ukraine is a terrible mistake and waste, and that Volodymyr Zelensky is unworthy of American assistance. …

Then, this weekend, in an interview with Fox News’ Maria Bartiromo, Trump outlined a scenario where he would dramatically increase U.S. military aid to Ukraine. …

Trump’s plan is to cut off arms shipments to Ukraine, and then see whether Putin agrees to a deal; if Putin does not, Trump would then ship even more arms to Ukraine.

That, in a nutshell, is where the GOP finds itself. A man who can say almost literally anything and retain intractable support is vastly leading a field of men and women who don’t seem able to distinguish themselves as worthy of the job.

Read the whole thing here.

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