The GOP debates are down to the saddest final 4 ever
They're competing for a participation trophy.
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Tonight, Donald Trump’s challengers for the Republican presidential nomination will go through the motions of a fourth and final Trump-less debate in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. This one will feature the also-ran final four — Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Chris Christie — and will almost certainly be the least watched debate so far, given that it’s airing on NewsNation and The CW.
Barring Haley literally punching the always insufferable Ramaswamy — something she seemed close to doing last time around — it promises to be a forgettable evening. But given the sorry state of the GOP, perhaps these debates were foreordained to be unmemorable. In any event, the final debate is a fitting occasion to take stock of a shambolic primary that will be best remembered for Trump further debasing his party into a sad cult of personality.
The fundamental truth about Trump is that he’s an authoritarian who’s more than willing to sacrifice democracy for his own ends, and everything else is background noise. Just yesterday, for example, he admitted to Sean Hannity that he plans to abuse power on his very first day back in the White House. Trump doesn’t give a rip about policy or the well-being of his supporters. He cares only about himself.
But if the past three debates are any indication, tonight’s will feature little to no discussion of these key, uncomfortable facts about the party’s leader. It really should. As political scientist Brian Klaas recently put in on twitter, “Trump’s authoritarianism is the most important political story in America — and nothing else is close.” The Republican Party has a history of standing up to dictators, but the candidates vying to take Trump’s spot are barely willing to call him out, with one exception — Chris Christie, who qualified for the last debate barely and only at the last minute.
Christie’s campaign has demonstrated how little room there is in today’s GOP for Trump critics. He came out of the gates swinging, proclaiming of the Trumps during his campaign launch speech in June that “the grift from this family is breathtaking.”
But it quickly became clear that there was no lane in the GOP primary for someone spitting those facts. Christie’s TV hits have been big hits with the libs, but he gets booed by Republican voters, and he’s currently polling below three percent nationally. He’s only really competing in New Hampshire, where he’s just above 10 percent, more than 30 points behind Trump. And while Christie’s campaign flounders, Trump rubs salt in the wound by demeaning him as a “fat pig.”
Perhaps mindful that the majority of the GOP base remains part of the Trump cult, the only two non-Trump candidates who have gained any semblance of sustained traction in polling — DeSantis and Haley — have shunned away from Christie-style broadsides. Instead, they treat Trump like a normal politician who had a successful presidency. They’ve made themselves absurd by defending Trump’s egregious misconduct and criminality even as they ostensibly run against him. It’s unsurprisingly proven to be a losing strategy with no chance of success, barring a medical event or alien abduction — and the aliens don’t seem to be coming to save us.
Trump is too vulnerable to get off this easy
One of the remarkable things about this meek submission to Trump is that he’s vulnerable not only on principle but also because he’s a proven loser. Even Trump’s one big political victory — the 2016 election — came with the asterisks that he lost the popular vote and benefitted from a massive foreign interference campaign. Since then, he’s done nothing but lose.
In 2018, Republicans were swept out of power in the House, losing a whopping 41 seats. Two years later, Trump was defeated and his party lost control of the Senate. President Biden headed into the 2022 midterms hamstrung by high inflation and dire poll numbers, but Trump went out of his way to insert himself in key races and in the process helped Democrats maintain a Senate majority while almost holding the House. This year’s off-year election provided even more evidence of Trump’s reverse Midas touch: even in red states like Kentucky, his endorsement isn’t helping Republicans win.
The political case against Trump should’ve been especially easy for DeSantis to make. He could’ve rightfully pointed out that while Trump was racking up loss and after loss and trying to overthrow democracy, he was winning big in Florida and turning the state red. But instead, DeSantis has been making a fool himself by refusing to denounce Trump’s Nazi rhetoric while insisting the issue with his authoritarianism is that it doesn’t go far enough.
DeSantis came out of the 2022 midterms with a lot of hype and for a brief moment seemed poised to make a serious run at the nomination. But he cowered as soon as Trump started attacking him, and his campaign was over before it officially began — in fact, we wrote his campaign pre-mortem more than eight months ago.
Haley is following the same path. From the moment she launched her campaign, her main critique of Trump is that he’s too old — a line that might be effective if Trump was a normal aging politician instead of an aspiring authoritarian who already tried to end democracy. She contorts herself to avoid meaningfully rebuking him. Asked recently about Trump calling his political foes vermin, Haley politely said she disagrees but added “I think he means well.” She, like DeSantis, ignores abundant evidence of Trump’s criminality and dismisses his 91 felony charges as the product of a weaponized DOJ.
In a telling episode, Haley could barely muster a mild criticism when Trump suggested former Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley should be executed, despite the fact her husband serves in the National Guard. Trump, meanwhile, has been going wild on “DeSanctimonious” and “Bird Brain,” demeaning them at every turn. If this sounds like a one-sided fight, that’s because it is. The latest national polling shows DeSantis and Haley at Dean Phillips-like levels, with Trump solidly over 60 percent.
And while the key early races in Iowa and New Hampshire are a bit tighter than the nationwide numbers, Trump’s polling in those states has for months been stable in the mid-40s and shows no sign of cratering. It’s hard to imagine a collapse between now and the January 15 Iowa caucuses — especially if DeSantis and Haley continue ignoring the orange elephant in the room while pretending they’re already running a general campaign against Biden.
A primary about nothing
The Republican primary hasn’t been the referendum on Trump’s criminality and authoritarianism that would’ve been a real service to voters. So what has it been instead? A whole lot of nothing.
While the debates have reminded us that Republicans hold a range of unpopular and regressive positions, the primary certainly hasn’t been about policy. Sure, Trump and company all demagogue the border and fear-monger about immigrants, and some GOP voters are activated by those things. But the candidates are ultimately offering talking points, not fleshed-out policy positions or proposals.
Tom Nichols, staff writer at The Atlantic, expanded on this point over the weekend on in a twitter thread that began with him noting that analyzing Trump’s policies is “a fool’s errand” because what Republican voters really care about is how he “channels their diffuse anger about their lives at others Americans.” He continued:
This lack of policy substance has been apparent throughout the Republican primary. The debates have been centered on the candidates picking fights with one another (but rarely with Trump), trying not to get pinned down on the specifics of which abortion ban they’d sign, and talking a lot about “wokeness.” They offer vague promises to out-Trump Trump by actually building the wall or replacing the ACA with, well, something.
So the lack of buzz about tonight reflects a demoralizing primary. Who wants to hear the same BS from DeSantis and Haley about how they’re best positioned to defeat Biden when they’re not even willing to do what it takes to win the primary?
Christie can at least look himself in the mirror and reassure himself that he told the truth about Trump, albeit belatedly. DeSantis and Haley? They’ve already wasted enough of our time.
That’s it for today
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