Opinion: It’s not a debate — Republicans want Trump vs. Biden in an apocalyptic battle
That’s the only word I can think of to describe the second Republican presidential debate, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley. The crosstalk. The weird answers. The staging. It was just … unwatchable, at least for the first hour. The second hour was a little better but I suspect many people had tuned out after the opening train wreck. The last five minutes were probably the best, if you made it that far.
As Wednesday’s GOP presidential debate at the Reagan library made clear, the Republican Party has moved a long way from Reaganism.
The real question entering the debate was whether these exercises are now academic, with former President Trump leading the field by such a wide margin nationally and in the early-voting states (albeit by slightly smaller margins in Iowa and New Hampshire than the national samples). Can any other candidate’s words or one-liners make up the difference?
It’s obvious the Republican zeitgeist has shifted. No longer is electability a question that resonates for GOP voters. They have clearly decided that Trump is the most electable Republican running.
In poll after poll, Trump scores the highest when Republicans are asked who they believe is most likely to defeat President Biden. For months, the theory was that though they might love Trump, eventually their desire to defeat Biden would lead them to a more electable candidate.
A UC Berkeley/L.A. Times poll finds Republicans strongly favor Trump in California’s 2024 primary, though voters are concerned about his and Biden’s vulnerabilities.
But it just hasn’t happened. Trump has used his numerous indictments like rocket fuel, rallying supporters and racing so far ahead of his opponents that they can barely see him. Heck, they physically can’t see him at all — he doesn’t even respect them enough to show up and debate.
Interestingly, rather than Trump himself, the Washington Post and ABC News may have delivered the felling stroke to the other GOP campaigns in a poll released Sunday showing the former president beating the incumbent by 10 points in a general election matchup! (I won’t dwell on it here, but there is no doubt that Biden is having a high-speed come-apart if you look under the hood of all these polls, even the ones showing a closer horse race.)
Lots of Americans hate a Biden-Trump rematch. There’s a lot of magical thinking about how one might be avoided. But the alternatives are increasingly unlikely.
Although it is magical thinking to believe that either Trump or Biden can win a general election in these polarized times by 10 points, the Post/ABC poll — along with several others showing Trump tied or slightly ahead — is evidence enough to Republicans that the American people are ready to deliver vindication to their world view.
And that’s elemental: Republicans desperately want vindication. For all of it. For the Russia investigation. For the impeachments. For the indictments. For the 2020 election. For Jan. 6. For Biden’s presidency. They want one big apocalyptic contest that they think will deliver what they want to hear: Trump. Was. Right.
The Republican Party, remade by Trump, has long wanted this showdown. True, voters were momentarily worried after the Jan. 6 riot that Trump was damaged goods, but they quickly set that view aside as Trump spun a narrative that it really wasn’t all that bad.
Then they were worried after the GOP’s disappointing showing in the November 2022 midterms that perhaps Trump had lost his touch. Or that his touch was toxic. But Trump succeeded at changing the subject by entering the presidential campaign well before the candidate who was supposed to be his strongest challenger, Trump without the baggage: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Just as he did after Jan. 6 — after the Senate Republicans refused to convict him in the second impeachment trial — a wounded Trump has used his time wisely and re-coagulated like the bad guy in “Terminator 2,” while DeSantis waited in the wings until late May.
Then came the indictments. Many ask why DeSantis is faltering. I would submit that he’s not; instead, Trump is soaring. The indictments have given GOP voters a reminder of why they fell for Trump in the first place: They believe a cabal of “elites” are rigging everything in America against them, and against their champion, just as he always told them.
Donald Trump’s enablers know that history’s heroes stand on principle, but they choose cowardice over courage.
The 2024 Republican primary has entered a post-policy phase. There’s no doubt that DeSantis has been a fantastic conservative political and policy success in Florida; a Republican governor who has gotten results. Or that former U.N. Ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is a polished presence. Or that South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott is one of the most inspirational Republicans in Washington.
But for the Republican Party now, no one can deliver the vindication that Trump can, should he defeat Biden in 2024. For Trump to win a national election after everything that has happened would be, for the voters who have stuck with him since 2016, sweet revenge on the legacy media, on Democrats and on those who sit atop the institutions they have come to at best distrust and at worst despise.
Is the primary over? No. People have to vote, and it is Iowa or bust for DeSantis and all the rest. And the Iowa caucuses have seen late-breaking shifts in the past. And maybe my fellow Republicans at some point will think more seriously about what might happen if we nominate a man who could be a convicted felon by Inauguration Day in 2025.
But don’t bet on second thoughts. Trump looks strong now and Biden looks weak, a state of nirvana for most Republican voters.
Scott Jennings is a former special assistant to President George W. Bush and a senior CNN political commentator. @ScottJenningsKY
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