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Prepping for the Republican debate
The best of the rest face off in Milwaukee
There are many ways to determine the beginning of an election cycle. It could be said that the campaign season begins with the first candidate’s announcement or the first primary (or caucus since it’s Iowa), but even though the candidates have been sniping for a while now, the first debate gives the campaign season an official feel. For Republicans, the first debate is tomorrow night. (Here is the AP guide on how to watch.)
It has been about eight years since Republicans had a debate of presidential candidates and things have changed a lot since then. In 2015, I was optimistic when I looked at the Republican bench, filled with prominent senators and governors, and considered the fact that Hillary Clinton, a very weak candidate, was almost certain to be the Democratic nominee. It seemed to be the time for a new conservative dawn.
I turned out to be badly wrong, and now, seven years later, I don’t feel one iota of optimism for the Republican Party.
Photo: Rick Barrett Unsplash.com
For starters, with a few exceptions, I would have been happy with most of the 2016 candidates. Sadly, almost to a man they have debased themselves over the past eight years. My preferred candidate in 2016, Marco Rubio, has been one of the biggest disappointments. Almost no one from either party has emerged from the Trump years with their reputation enhanced and that goes double for the GOP hopefuls from two cycles ago.
This year, I look at the Republican candidates and think to myself, “Is this the best we’ve got?”
Here are the current standings based on FiveThirtyEight’s average of polls (an asterisk indicates that the candidate has qualified for the first debate):
Donald Trump* - 52 percent
Ron DeSantis* - 15 percent
Vivek Ramaswamy* - 8.9 percent
Mike Pence* - 4.2 percent
Tim Scott* - 3.5 percent
Nikki Haley* - 3.4 percent
Chris Christie* 3.3 percent
Asa Hutchinson* - 0.7 percent
Doug Burgum* - 0.4 percent
Will Hurd- 0.3 percent
Francis Suarez - 0.2 percent
Perry Johnson - did not register in polling
Larry Elder - did not register in polling
I can’t get excited about any of them. Nevertheless, here is my rundown of the Republican field. I separate the candidates into four broad categories:
Donald Trump Anybody who has read anything I’ve written should know how I feel about Donald Trump and, since he’s skipping the debate, let’s just move on.
Vivek Ramaswamy A candidate for people who like MAGA but want to lose with a fresh face. Ramaswamy is an entrepreneur and the son of Indian immigrants. He is wealthy and popular on the speaking circuit, but he is not very knowledgeable and some of his policy positions are inconsistent and far out of the mainstream. Among these are 9/11 trutherism, demonizing the FDA, and rationalizations about January 6. Having never run for office, Ramaswamy, like Trump, is a ticking time bomb that will likely blow up in Republican faces before the election if he becomes the nominee.
Ron DeSantis There is some debate about whether Ron DeSantis is a MAGA candidate. I tend to think that if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck then it’s probably a duck, and DeSantis has spent the last three years competing with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to see which of them can veer farther right in search of Donald Trump’s base. DeSantis, who was once touted as an establishment conservative, seems to have won the race to the fringe right (although Abbott put up strong competition), but Trump’s lock on his base has proven impossible to crack. DeSantis had a chance at the nomination by capturing Republican voters who were Trump-fatigued, but instead, he tried and failed to become a mini-Trump. DeSantis’s campaign is faltering and he has a lot to lose on Wednesday night. Considering his high burn rate on campaign cash, a disappointing showing could end his campaign quickly.
Mike Pence Pence has no shot. He did the right thing in resisting Trump’s orders on January 6, but in so doing, he ruined his reputation with the MAGA crowd. In legitimizing Trump for the previous four years and then rationalizing and protecting him after January 6, Pence made sure that anti-Trump voters couldn’t trust him either. In straddling the train tracks, he got hit by the train and now Pence’s base, Christian evangelicals, have largely deserted him for The Former Guy. Pence’s political fate was sealed when he agreed to be Trump’s vice president, a decision which turned out to be a major error in judgement and one for which he will probably never recover.
Nikki Haley Nikki Haley had promise. I thought that she might be a candidate who could unite the party by bringing MAGA and traditional Republicans together. But like Pence, she seems to be unable to stop reflexively defending Donald Trump. Haley started the campaign with a lot of potential but she has been unable to break out of the pack and unwilling to challenge the frontrunner. I think she’s more interested in being Trump’s VP candidate as a precursor to 2028. That disingenuous approach is bad for both the country and the party, and it’s a good reason for Republicans to reject her.
Tim Scott My criticisms of the second South Carolina candidate (how weird is it to have two candidates from South Carolina and neither of them be Lindsey Graham?) are much the same as for the first. I wanted to like Scott and I like a lot of what he has to say, but when I hear Scott politicizing the Trump indictments and (falsely) saying that the Biden Administration’s Department of Justice has been “weaponized,” I consider it disqualifying (for my vote at least, not in the same sense that Trump may be disqualified under the 14th Amendment). Nevertheless, Scott has picked up a reasonable amount of support from evangelicals and is within striking distance of being within striking distance of second place.
Chris Christie Chris Christie is a meme. Literally. The former New Jersey governor is mainly remembered for three things: His 2012 pre-election bromance with Barack Obama, the “Bridgegate” scandal, and a series of viral memes based on a photo of the gov in on a closed public beach during a budget impasse. Make no mistake, Christie isn’t in the race to win it. Christie is in the race to take out Donald Trump the way he destroyed Marco Rubio in 2016. With Trump ducking for cover on Wednesday, it will be interesting to see if Christie goes after another candidate or attacks Trump in absentia. It will also be interesting to see whether Trump eventually confronts the New Jersey hitman or whether continues to skip debates.
Asa Hutchinson A former Arkansas governor, Asa Hutchinson entered the race last April and promptly disappeared. Seriously, I think I saw his face on a milk carton. Hutchinson is a real conservative with good experience in governing, but he has no chance because he says mean things about Trump. Even beyond that, he has a name recognition problem because he was not a showboat governor. Hutchinson would be a good candidate in the general election, but he won’t make it that far.
The Why-Are-You-Here? Crowd
Doug Burgum Doug Burgum may be the best candidate in the race. Unfortunately, the North Dakota governor also has a name recognition problem. Burgum is a successful businessman and billionaire who qualified for the debate using a promotion in which he gave a $20 gift card to everyone who donated $1 to his campaign. (For the record, a $19 net profit was not worth giving Republicans my contact information.) With no discernible opinion on Donald Trump to alienate either faction of the party, the debate may be Burgum’s chance to wow the voters and move up in the polls.
Will Hurd Former Texas congressman Will Hurd is another candidate I can respect. He was critical of Donald Trump but nevertheless failed to support the first impeachment. Hurd did not run for re-election in 2020 after voting to condemn a Trump tweet that was widely considered racist.
Francis Suarez Francis Suarez is the mayor of Miami. Suarez previously said that candidates who didn’t qualify for the first debate should drop out of the race, so look for the mayor to end his campaign if he wants to maintain his credibility.
Perry Johnson Johnson is a businessman from Michigan who ran an unsuccessful campaign for governor in 2022. I guess he figured if he could lose a gubernatorial race, he could lose a presidential one as well. I wouldn’t know Johnson was running if I didn’t keep seeing his ads on Facebook. I think my research for this article probably noticeably impacted the number of web searches for him.
Larry Elder Larry Elder is a right-wing talk show host, which is about the last thing we need in the White House.
And that’s about the size of it. Are you as underwhelmed as I am?
The debate will probably shake things up a bit. Donald Trump will probably remain on top despite being a no-show. DeSantis will struggle to assert dominance while the others will likely be gunning for him in hopes of bringing down the Number Two and narrowing the field.
In the end, I think it’s going to be a competition for the runner-up position. As I‘ve said all along, Trump owns the Republican Party. The nomination is his if he wants it, and he seems to want it. That’s true whether he’s indicted or not. Trump can’t lose the Republican primary and he can’t win the general election. (Prove me wrong, Republicans!) And that’s true whether he was indicted or not.
I think that most of the candidates have the same attitude as Nikki Haley. Campaigning for 2024 is more about name recognition and building support for 2028 than any real attempt to win the current nomination. For most, it’s a sensible strategy, but Nikki Haley could have done so much better.
As to who I’ll ultimately vote for, I’m undecided. I plan to see how things shake out over the next few months, but right now, it would be easier to tell you who I won’t vote for.
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