The End of the Pretend Primary Is in Sight
On the CNN debate stage, a slapfight for second place.
BY THIS POINT IN THE PRESIDENTIAL PRIMARY SEASON, there’s usually excitement and uncertainty, with Iowa and New Hampshire wide open (like the Republican primaries in 2016 and 2012) or down to a few contenders (like both parties’ primaries in 2008). This cycle, though, Donald Trump’s lead looks like Secretariat’s in the 1973 Belmont Stakes: He has been so far ahead for so long that the word “frontrunner” is inadequate.
Still, even though Trump’s dominance is such that most of his supposed opponents have been defending him, or at least avoiding going after his biggest vulnerabilities, and have said they will back him if he is the nominee, even if he’s a convicted felon, Republicans are going through the motions anyway.
Wednesday night’s GOP debate, the fifth, was down to Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley, the last survivors of the not-Trump subprimary. It wasn’t quite a broadcast from another dimension where Trump couldn’t run, because his name came up—and both candidates weakly chastised him for not being there.
There was plenty of petty sniping and slanging of insults. Yet the one-on-one format, the focused questions of CNN’s Jake Tapper and Dana Bash—including followups on questions the candidates dodged—and the absence of ridiculous troll Vivek Ramaswamy made it more serious than previous debates.
In this format, DeSantis and Haley both delivered their strongest performances of the season. It was easy to imagine them as the top two candidates in a normal primary, representing factions of the party that mostly agree, but differ on a few key policies.
Each of the candidates offered themselves as executives who can deliver. Each launched specific attacks on the other’s recent statements and records as governors. Each accused the other of falsehoods, with Haley repeatedly advertising a website allegedly documenting DeSantis’s lies.
DeSantis emphasized culture war, arguing that Haley wasn’t hard enough on trans people and that she was “virtue signaling to the left” when she tweeted that everyone should feel the death of George Floyd. Haley emphasized foreign policy, arguing that DeSantis was an unserious waffler.
Although little surprising was said on foreign policy, it was nice to hear it seriously discussed (unlike in the first debate, which was marked by embarrassing unseriousness on major world issues). Both candidates tried to out-anti-China each other. Both called Biden weak on Iran, and touted their anti-Iran credentials. And both were staunchly pro-Israel. Haley called Israel the “tip of the spear” against terrorism and said America needs Israel more than Israel needs America. DeSantis came out against the two-state solution for Israel-Palestine, said the United States should always defer to Israel’s choices, and expressed support for transferring some of the Palestinian population to other Middle Eastern countries, even going so far as to name some of the ones he thinks should receive them.
Haley and DeSantis differed on Ukraine, though, and in their split represented the two sides of today’s GOP. Haley offered a more Reaganite, internationalist vision, advocating U.S. support for Ukraine (and Taiwan). DeSantis appealed to more isolationist and/or Russia-sympathetic parts of the party by saying it’s time for peace in Ukraine without explaining how to get it.
While DeSantis lined up with Trump on Ukraine, he attacked Trump from the right on domestic issues:
Let’s just be honest. [Trump] said he was going to build the wall, have Mexico pay for it. He did not deliver that. He said that he was going to drain the swamp. He did not deliver that. He said he was going to hold Hillary accountable, and he let her off the hook. He said he was going to eliminate the debt, and he added $7.8 trillion.
But DeSantis dodged questions about Trump’s unconstitutional and illegal actions and his promises to abuse power if elected.
THERE WAS ANOTHER CANDIDATE noticeably absent from the CNN stage on Wednesday night: Chris Christie didn’t make the debate, and announced the end of his campaign hours beforehand. His was the primary’s last (only) anti-Trump voice.
Christie never had a chance. His run highlighted just how MAGA the Republican party is: Polls had him with a paltry 3.4 percent in Iowa according to FiveThirtyEight’s average, but 11.6 percent in New Hampshire, where anyone, not just party members, can vote in the primary.
Haley has been surging in New Hampshire, pulling within 12.5 percent of Trump’s lead, and single digits in some polls. Christie is the anti-Trump candidate, Haley is the least Trumpy candidate remaining, and if she gets all his supporters, she might have a fighting chance against Trump in New Hampshire.
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Haley and DeSantis both trail Trump by over thirty points in Iowa, but a New Hampshire win would change the narrative, giving Haley momentum. She’d get more media attention, more donations, and a chance to sell herself as an opportunity to move on. It might be a long shot, but it’s less unlikely than any alternative.
If Trump is a serious threat to the Constitution—he is—then it makes sense to back whichever candidate has the best shot of stopping him at this stage.
But Christie shouldn’t endorse Haley. He got out of her way in advance, but championing her would undermine the point of Christie’s campaign. Haley says she’d vote for Trump even if he’s convicted of a felony, and would pardon him if she wins.
At the debate, Tapper asked the candidates if they differed from Trump on any constitutional matters. Haley said January 6th was “a terrible day,” but she still fed the conspiracy theories that led to it by alluding to vague 2020 voting “irregularities.”
When Tapper asked about Trump’s lawyer’s argument that a president can’t be criminally charged for anything done in office unless impeached and removed by Congress first, including having people killed, Haley rejected it as absurd. But that’s an easy one, since it’s almost certain to get slapped down in court. On the rest, she mostly dodged.
Haley did argue that rule of law is essential at one point in the debate—but about Barack Obama and illegal immigration.
So what, you might say, she’s just doing what’s necessary to appeal to today’s GOP voters. Yes, but that’s the point: If that’s what Republicans want, then they’ll just vote Trump, which means Haley is enabling him.
The most likely impact of Christie endorsing Haley would be adding credibility to Haley’s eventual endorsement of Trump. After New Hampshire comes the Nevada caucus, where polls show Trump with over 60 or 70 percent. Then it’s South Carolina, where Trump has 53 percent in FiveThirtyEight’s average, 27 points ahead of Haley. He’s way ahead in every national poll, and will remain in the national spotlight.
If the dynamics of the race don’t fundamentally change, Haley will drop out within the next few months, perhaps joining Trump on the ticket as his vice president. Then we can get past this pretend primary, and to the hugely consequential main event.