August 18, 2023

The GOP Primary Obviously Isn’t Over, but the First Debate Is Crucial

This race is very, very far from over yet. As the aphorism from the world of sports goes, that’s why they play the game.

If one is to believe the prevailing narrative from Donald Trump’s current campaign to retake the White House, the 2024 Republican presidential primary might as well be over. The former president has been consistently dominating the top-line horse race polling for months now, the argument goes, despite (or perhaps because of?) the fact he has now been criminally indicted four separate times, by three different prosecutors, in four different jurisdictions. Therefore, the Trump triumphalists shout from their rooftops, the other candidates should just drop out right now. “Spare your dignity and coronate Trump today!!!”

This argument is absurd for approximately a million different reasons.

First, and perhaps most important, the last time I checked the calendar, it still said, “August 2023.” While commentators, campaign operatives and political junkies with apparently nothing else better to do in their free time are already intensely following the Republican presidential primary, the same is simply not true for the vast majority of Americans who largely tune out the news during the dog days of summer. A political party’s first televised presidential primary debate marks the unofficial beginning of its normal, non-activist voter base paying attention in earnest. Yes, Trump has maintained a stubborn lead in the national horse race polls for months now. But it is still ridiculously early.

Second, and perhaps next important, it is totally unclear what shape Trump might find himself in six months from now, to say nothing of one year from now. Many of the former president’s “coronate him today!”-style enthusiasts tend to suppose, because of the thoroughly unjust nature of the ruling class’s sprawling multistate legal persecution of Trump, that he will be inevitably exonerated from all charges and acquitted of all legal woes.

Trump’s supporters are right on the unjustness of the Regime’s jihad against Trump — though the former president’s often-myopic conduct, from his ignoring a grand jury subpoena in the Mar-a-Lago classified documents retention case to the outlandish, infamous Jan. 2, 2021, phone call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in the Fulton County, Georgia case, makes it all-too easy for his foes. But Trump’s supporters are wrong about the very nature of these four indictments, each one of which necessarily involves a different judge and a different juror pool, and all of which present differing likelihoods of guilt, acquittal or some sort of ultimate plea deal. In the interim, furthermore, Trump will be strapped for time as he is forced to physically jet off to courtrooms in four jurisdictions, and his campaign and supporting super PAC will continue to have their coffers bled dry with ever-mounting legal bills.

Third, there is a low but non-zero possibility that, at some point next year, the result of at least one of these criminal cases will be Trump in handcuffs in a prison cell. This is truly the stuff of third-world banana republics, and no American patriot should wish this outcome no matter what his partisan leanings or candidate preferences may be. But we have already crossed the Rubicon here — reached the point of no return. It is all uncharted waters, henceforth. Trump will try to delay all four criminal trials until after election season, but he will probably be unsuccessful in that effort. And while he could indeed pardon himself for his own federal crimes if he is found guilty in one (or both) of Department of Justice special counsel Jack Smith’s two indictments and (against all odds) elected president again, he would have no such luck on the state-level charges — particularly in Georgia, the most perilous of all four indictments.

The idea that now is the time to coronate Trump as the 2024 Republican presidential nominee, therefore, is simply ridiculous. But Trump’s continued polling dominance, especially in national horse race metrics, is also undeniable. For that reason above all else, next week’s first GOP presidential primary debate in Milwaukee matters a lot to every other candidate not named “Donald Trump.” And it matters a lot regardless of whether Trump decides to show up for it — which is unclear, as of this writing.

Every Trump rival who will be in Milwaukee is presumably preparing in earnest for the big night, but the stakes are clearly highest for Trump’s top rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Despite sky-high (perhaps unreasonably high) expectations at the time of formal campaign launch and a supporting super PAC touting massive sums of cash on hand, the DeSantis operation has thus far underperformed at the national level. Partially, that can be blamed on the fact that DeSantis, who has an extraordinarily impressive gubernatorial track record and a telegenic young family seemingly made for Inauguration Day photo ops, has thus far been whacked with more negative advertising expenditures than Trump and incumbent President Joe Biden combined.

DeSantis will need to resist taking the inevitable debate moderator bait about the Mar-a-Lago-dwelling elephant in the room (or not in the room, as the case may be), and confidently redirect the conversation back to his own terrain. He will need to use his time on stage to tell his own compelling political story: someone who made the nation’s third-largest — and formerly purple — state a deep-red bastion, and who can similarly engender both economic recovery and restore civilizational sanity on the national stage, if given the opportunity. He will need to do this while simultaneously reminding people, perhaps when former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie inevitably attacks him, that he can be a bare-knuckle brawler when the time calls for it. DeSantis is the same man whose frequent COVID-era sparring with a deeply hostile Florida press corps made for many viral social media moments, after all.

Ultimately, Republican voters want someone who will fight for them — for their priorities and their values. And they need to be inspired to believe in someone. Barack Obama is in one sense the last person alive Republicans should take advice from, but perhaps there was a kernel of truth to be found in the success of his ubiquitous “Hope” branding from 2008.

Donald Trump remains the favorite to capture the Republican presidential nomination. He was always going to be. But this race is very, very far from over yet. As the aphorism from the world of sports goes, that’s why they play the game.


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