9 p.m. ET on Fox News. You won’t believe how luxurious this debate is going to be.
I stand by my prediction that this will be a letdown, just because there’s no way realistically it could fulfill expectations. Half the people watching are hoping for some “Game of Thrones”-style bloodbath which ends with Trump hoisting Jeb’s head on a pike. Actually, per YouGov’s numbers, maybe more than half:
That same poll has Bush’s favorable rating among Republicans at 55/36. Donald Trump’s rating? 61/34, up from 38/47 less than two months ago. In fact, that 61 percent is now tops in the field apart from Marco Rubio, who’s a whisker above Trump at 62 percent. (At 17 percent, Rubio’s unfavorables are far lower than Trump’s, though.) There’s not much to be gained by taking potshots at a guy whom Republican voters like, as Rick Perry could now tell you, which explains why rival campaigns are telling Byron York that they plan to lay off tonight:
“Have you noticed that anybody who attacks Donald Trump goes down in the polls?” asked one adviser to a primetime debate candidate outside Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland Thursday afternoon. The adviser went on to list Rick Perry (who called Trump a “cancer on conservatism”), Lindsey Graham (who called Trump a “jackass”), and even Jeb Bush (who criticized Trump’s immigration statements and on the day of the debate was quoted privately calling Trump a “clown,” “buffoon” and “a–hole”) as among those on the losing end of confrontations with Trump. While the adviser conceded that Graham was never a presence in the polls anyway, the point was made.
“There’s no percentage in doing it [attacking Trump],” said another adviser to another primetime candidate. “Anybody who’s done it, their poll numbers have gone down.”
There’s a chance that either Jeb or Marco Rubio, both of whom want to polish their “electability” cred, might try to “Sistah Souljah” Trump over what he said about Mexican rapists, but apart from that the field will steer clear and let the new guy try to answer actual policy questions semi-coherently. If you’re looking for brawls, watch the lower-polling candidates since they’re the ones who need to make a splash most urgently. Rand Paul told CBS this morning, “Our job tonight is to step up, defend and maybe demolish some other bad ideas that are out there or point out that maybe there are some empty suits without ideas.” Sounds like he’s ready for a throwdown with interventionists. Chris Christie and Rubio will be happy to oblige him, which is good news since foreign policy may be the only thing any of these people sharply disagree on. In fact, between the meager time allotted for each answer and the insta-clip dynamism of social media, I’m not sure why anyone who’s already familiar with these candidates would bother watching the debate in real time. The interesting exchanges will all be clipped and uploaded to YouTube within minutes of them happening. Why force yourself through the 20th iteration of Jeb Bush’s pitch about the “right to rise” or Scott Walker shopping at Kohl’s or Marco Rubio coming from a family of bartenders or Ted Cruz wanting to paint with bold colors rather than pale pastels?
Here’s the only X factor that might make this interesting:
Many campaigns are convinced that Fox News — the Roger Ailes-overseen network that excels at turning politics into high-octane entertainment — is intent on creating a confrontation-rich spectacle.
What gave it away: Prior to the debate, each candidate was asked to record a video that would be played at the debate. In the video, the candidate would ask a question that would be posed to each of their rivals. Advisers to two campaigns said it’s not clear whether Fox News will ultimately use the videos. But the network’s intentions, they said, were clear: Generate conflict.
Not as interesting as a series of one-on-one debates, but if we’re destined to accept spectacle as a fair substitute for meaningful discussion, I’m glad they’re trying to make the spectacle extra spectacular.
Here’s your thread for commenting. My dark-horse picks tonight are Christie and Huckabee, the latter because he’s always good in front of a camera and the former because, at least in theory, he can appeal to both Trump and Bush fans. If you want a “moderate” who knows policy but who’s also willing to call his opponents schmucks to their faces, the Jersey guy has you covered. While we wait for the show to begin, here’s Nate Silver pegging Trump’s chances of advancing through all six stages of the primary and winning the nomination at roughly two percent. That sounds about right, although I don’t know how Trump beats anyone in the field, Jeb included, if/when the field narrows next spring and we’re left with a choice between two candidates to face Hillary in the general. Exit quotation via Kevin Williamson, who marvels at Trump fans’ interest in the size of his balls rather than his ideological commitment: “[T]he problem with populist conservatism is that it is populist but not conservative.”