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Presidential debates usually draw rounds of anticipatory speculation. Who will come out swinging? Who needs a big night? What issues will the moderators focus on?
The second meetup of 2024 Republican candidates, set for the Fox Business cable channel Wednesday night, brings just one question. Why are we doing this again?
Donald Trump, who won’t participate in this one, either, has gigantic leads in poll after poll. No indictment or political argument can bump dedicated GOP voters from their desire to see Trump have his revenge. What possible difference can this debate make?
Trump’s defiance of political gravity is so remarkable, he’s even getting help from the least expected source: Joe Biden.
Biden is almost single-handedly puncturing the best argument against Trump, which is electability. All but the most devoted Democrats see Biden’s presidential performance as poor. Republicans are increasingly confident that any of their candidates could win — and again, polls suggest they’re not wrong — so why not follow their hearts and go with Trump?
Plenty of presidents who seemed vulnerable as their reelection efforts unfolded have gone on to victory, usually thanks to a combination of improved circumstances in the country and a good contrast with an untested opponent.
Biden’s biggest problem, though, is one that’s not fixable between now and November 2024. It’s his advanced age, and that will only get worse. Aging is generally a one-way journey, so what could possibly happen between now and then to persuade the 74% of voters in a recent ABC News-Washington Post poll — including 61% of Democrats — who say he’s too old that instead he can be president until he’s 86?
Many voters see a bad combination of a president who’s not up to snuff at a time of tremendous disruption. At home, the economy is shaky, and inflation is wrecking the family budget. Strikes inject more uncertainty. Acts of random violence, especially in large cities, seem prevalent. The larger world looks troublesome, with an increasingly assertive China and the extended war in Ukraine. The United States looks powerless to control its own borders.
Society feels off its moorings, with standards slipping so much that even senators are wearing shorts in their august chamber.
It all falls under a common theme — disorder, a condition voters will not tolerate long.
That works to Trump’s benefit, though he faces the same electoral problem he’s always had: He generally doesn’t add to his coalition. He won in 2016 based on an improbable alignment of just tens of thousands of votes in a few states that yielded an Electoral College win. Republicans got thumped in 2018 midterms, the swing states shifted to Biden in 2020, and the GOP fell short of the traditional midterm takeover in 2022, in large part because of terrible Trump-backed candidates.
Biden wants voters to choose between him and Trump, not render a verdict on Biden’s presidency. His best argument will be the threat of Trump, the chaos and disruption he brings.
But if the voters are offered decrepitude and existing disorder — with a deeply distrusted Vice President Kamala Harris as a likely successor — or a guy who at least looks like he stays awake in meetings, that’s at minimum a toss-up.
That’s what Republicans see shaping up. So, what can any Trump rival say Wednesday or in the next six months to change enough minds?
One thing they haven’t tried is attacking Trump’s strength. That was one of the signature techniques of strategist Karl Rove as he worked to flip Texas from blue to red. Chris Christie has approached Trump aggressively, but that’s largely a sideshow. It has to come from a top-tier candidate, arguing that Trump falls short of what the most hard-core base voters want: an effective fighter.
Point out that Trump appears to be going soft on abortion. Note his meandering answer about gender identity in a recent interview. Point to his efforts as president to compromise on immigration and guns and his complete surrender on the need to contain federal spending.
There’s no guarantee it would work. Trump’s bond with certain voters defies reason and political calculation. At least criticizing him invites some voters to question whether he’ll be engaged enough to fight the battles they want fought.
Trying to essentially offer up Trumpism without the baggage, which is what we’ve seen from DeSantis and others so far, is a dead-end. Voters will choose one last comeback tour featuring the greatest hits over a lame cover band every time.
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