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It’s hard to think of a more childishly on-brand stunt than Donald Trump’s effort to sabotage the first Republican debate of the 2024 presidential race.
The MAGA king refusing to put on his big-boy pants and share the stage with his opponents is one thing. But counterprogramming some sad sideshow to siphon attention away from the first major candidate forum of the cycle — and with Tucker Carlson, no less? That’s a whole different level of petulant and needy, and it speaks to his staggering disregard for voters and their right to accurately assess the field. The electorate, especially Trump-skeptical Republicans, should demand better.
I get why Mr. Trump isn’t eager to climb into this sandbox. Debating is hard, and he is out of practice. He participated in only two debates during the 2020 cycle, the first of which was the stuff of campaign legend — but in a bad way. (Proud boys, stand back and stand by!) At some point during Wednesday’s two-hour event he would need to talk about something other than his grievances. He hates doing that, and has always been kind of lousy at it. Much of the primary field he is now facing is younger, sharper, hungrier and actually cares about policy and governance. And while few people have Mr. Trump’s razzle-dazzle, at least a couple of his opponents have solid media chops. (Ramaswamy, baby!)
Mr. Trump may well be correct to assume he has more to lose than gain from these matchups. But it bears remembering that debates aren’t supposed to be primarily for the benefit of the candidates strutting and fretting upon the stage. They are meant to provide voters with a meaty opportunity to judge their options side-by-side, to listen to them field tough questions, to compare their policies and priorities and visions of leadership. The point is to help the electorate make an informed choice.
This is the case for every presidential hopeful. It is all the truer for Mr. Trump, who is dominating the Republican herd. Sure, he’s done the job before. But his performance was … well, unsettling enough that he lost re-election — and then handled the loss rather poorly. Some Republican voters, especially all those suburban women he needs to win back, might care to hear why he thinks they should give him another chance, especially now that he is up to his comb-over in legal trouble. His high-handed decision to skip this debate risks underscoring to these voters how unserious he is about winning their support and expanding his base even a whit, versus staying comfortably focused on his MAGA fans.
Mr. Trump’s participation would reveal much about the other candidates as well. How would the field handle it when he started spewing his conspiracy nonsense? Who would call him out? (If these debate strategy memos are any indication, not Pudding Fingers DeSantis.) Would anyone be able to wrest the spotlight from him?
Even with Mr. Trump missing, there will be much awkward talk of him. (Or so Fox News’s debate moderators promise.) You would think that, if he were in fighting form, he would want to be on hand to keep the pretenders to his throne in line — or, more precisely, to humiliate his critics face-to-face. I mean, lobbing fat jokesat Chris Christie from afar can provide Mr. Trump only so much satisfaction, particularly since Mr. Christie has been calling him a liar, a coward, and a con artist of late.
Instead, the former president is taking the cheap and entitled way out, fulfilling at least one of Mr. Christie’s critiques. After weeks of being tiresomely coy about his debate-night plans, he has decided to sit down with the disgraced pundit Tucker Carlson, The Times reported on Friday. The man is notoriously fickle, so who knows when — or even if — this will actually happen. Let’s hope it doesn’t. I’m sorry, but we already watched Mr. Carlson give Mr. Trump a thorough bootlicking back in April, not long before Fox News gave Mr. Carlson the boot, in fact, and it was sad. Worse than watching Don Jr.’s videos-for-hire on Cameo. No one needs to see more of that.
The Republican debaters, meanwhile, will be left to struggle with the thorny challenge of how to prevent Mr. Trump from hijacking the event in absentia. His antidemocratic inclinations and parade of indictments will have to be addressed. But then everyone really should move on to other issues, leaving the attention-thirsty former president in the shadows. If a Trumpless debate winds up being all about Mr. Trump anyway, he is the winner.
This election cycle is still young, and there will be other debates. The next one, in fact, was announced just last week. (Mark your calendars for Sept. 27!) Republican voters who are feeling even slightly ambivalent about a Trump nomination/coronation should make clear that they expect him to start showing up — and soon, before the field has been whittled way down.
Sure, the MAGA faithful don’t care about such niceties as accountability. But they do not constitute the majority of the Republican Party. The non-MAGA masses can take this primary in another direction if they choose. Many of those voters have reservations about Mr. Trump’s fitness for office — or at least about his electability. (The guy has been responsible for an awful lot of losing since 2016.) They deserve to take his measure directly against the field’s alternatives. And they are in a position to punish him if he cannot be bothered to even try.”