Articles

Trump Plays Hamlet Ahead of the Republican Primary Debate

August 10, 2023
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To debate, or not to debate, that is the question. Donald Trump is asking, like the prince of Denmark, “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” by declining to attend the Aug. 23 GOP presidential primary debate in Milwaukee or to show up to “take arms against a sea of troubles / And by opposing end them.”

At an Alabama GOP fundraiser last Saturday, Mr. Trump seemed inclined to skip Milwaukee. While assuring the crowd “I love to debate,” he added: “But you know sometimes you don’t want to be a fool. You want a smart president,” implying it would be clever to duck the event. After all, he claimed, the Republican primary “is closed out, nobody has even a chance.”

There are reasonable arguments as to why Mr. Trump is better off not attending the debate. For starters, he’s way ahead (38 points according to RealClearPolitics). Going to Milwaukee gives his competitors an opportunity to pummel him before a national television audience of Republican voters. Why risk the aura of inevitability he’s pushing? 

As the central player in the 2024 presidential drama, Mr. Trump draws far more attention than any other Republican or Democratic candidate. Why give other GOP hopefuls more exposure by arguing with them? They need caucus-goers and primary voters to know them better. Mr. Trump’s problem is the opposite. He risks being overexposed. 

Then there’s the specter of even greater legal troubles. Once he starts talking, he’s prone to spinning out of control. A verbal excess could provide more fodder for the prosecution in his coming trials. 

On the other hand, Mr. Trump’s failure to show up could be taken poorly. It could look like a sign of weakness (he wasn’t willing to defend himself) or overconfidence (he’s taking voters for granted). Voters could also see it as a petty snub to Fox News, whose executives he describes as a “group of MAGA hating Globalist RINOs” who are “aiding & abetting the destruction of America.” (I am a Fox News contributor.)

With Mr. Trump absent, his opponents would have an easier time turning the conversation away from the former president’s grievances and fabrications and toward the issues Republicans really care about. There are a lot of GOP voters still kicking tires. Though a July 27 New York Times/Siena Poll found 54% of Republicans support Mr. Trump now, only 52% of his supporters say they are committed—which comes to roughly 28% of the GOP electorate. That’s more than any other candidate but hardly a majority. 

Primary voters still scoping the field are more likely to see someone they prefer to the former president if he isn’t there to drag the debate back to his claims that the 2020 election was stolen, which he failed to prove in court. Instead, they’ll get a view of younger leaders, free of multiple indictments, arguing that they can beat President Biden, confront America’s challenges and serve two terms to boot.

In Mr. Trump’s absence, his GOP competitors might be emboldened to make their attacks tougher and specific, and thereby more effective. The thrice-indicted former president will miss his chance to counterpunch, which is often more effective in politics than throwing the first hit. And he’s good at it. But if he’s punching back on Truth Social, the delay between the first hit on TV and his response on social media will work to his disadvantage. It’ll be easier to belittle and dismiss him if he decides to go AWOL.

To debate, or not to debate, that is the question. Donald Trump is asking, like the prince of Denmark, “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” by declining to attend the Aug. 23 GOP presidential primary debate in Milwaukee or to show up to “take arms against a sea of troubles / And by opposing end them.”

At an Alabama GOP fundraiser last Saturday, Mr. Trump seemed inclined to skip Milwaukee. While assuring the crowd “I love to debate,” he added: “But you know sometimes you don’t want to be a fool. You want a smart president,” implying it would be clever to duck the event. After all, he claimed, the Republican primary “is closed out, nobody has even a chance.”

There are reasonable arguments as to why Mr. Trump is better off not attending the debate. For starters, he’s way ahead (38 points according to RealClearPolitics). Going to Milwaukee gives his competitors an opportunity to pummel him before a national television audience of Republican voters. Why risk the aura of inevitability he’s pushing? 

Read More at the WSJ

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