Roger L. Simon

Debate Predictions—Passing the Trump Test


Thursday’s opening Republican debates are fast upon us (5PM for the so-called undercard and 9PM for the overcard; both on Fox, obviously, and both times Eastern) and here are my promised predictions.

Well, they’re not really predictions, because these aren’t really debates. They have far too many people for that — ten on the overcard and seven on the undercard, which might make the latter more debate-like, but only slightly. Actually, these are more like serial press conferences. So what follows are what might be called pre-press conference observations.

I’ll deal with the undercard first because it’s a bit sad. I don’t think anybody on the undercard is going to go very far in the election after Thursday except Carly Fiorina, but as a vice-presidential candidate, alas. I say “alas” because Carly has been the most articulate candidate from either party so far by a significant amount, in my view. She’s certainly the best at answering questions, for what that’s worth, which admittedly isn’t everything. (Obama has made me skeptical about whether good campaigners make good presidents. They seem totally different skills. Some have both, but not many.) Nevertheless, I’d like to see Carly in the next administration and I know I’m not alone. But I don’t know what she could say on Thursday that would improve her lot that she hasn’t already said. Maybe a bigger audience will help, but being on the undercard doesn’t help with that. (BTW, apropos Carly, according to a just-released study from Grammarly – an online grammar-checker – Fiorina’s Facebook fans have the best grammar, spelling and punctuation of all Republican candidates at only 6.3 errors per 100 words. Trump’s fans came in last at 12.6 errors per hundred words.)

I also feel similarly sad Rick Perry didn’t make the overcard. He’s a great guy (I know him personally) with solid values. He would have been a fine president (miles better than the incumbent anyway) had he not fizzled out on his frontrunner status in 2012 for reasons largely to do with his health. He still, long shot, could bounce back, but it’s hard to imagine what he could say on Thursday that would do that for him. He’s already said it all — and pretty well the second time around. And nothing happened for him except he lost his place to John Kasich. Go figure…. Still, fingers crossed. You never know.

As for the others — Rick Santorum (rigid social conservatism lethal in the general), Bobby Jindal (smart, but ignored), Lindsey Graham (smart, funny, but ignored), George Pataki (didn’t know he was still around) and Jim Gilmore (who?) — I don’t predict any of them will have much of a chance of rising up out of the undercard unless there are a raft of gaffes among those on the overcard. And even then…

So on to the overcard. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or certainly a pundit of any sort to state what any breathing (or half-breathing) human being knows — THIS NIGHT IS ABOUT DONALD. His Trumpesty, the Trumpster or whatever we want to call him (maybe he should name himself) will be sitting in the number one center catbird seat with all eyes on him, probably even when he’s not talking. The other candidates are lucky they have close-up cameras or no one might know that they were there — unless and until they insult Trump or vice-versa. (It’s like the old joke about actors: “Enough about me. What do you think about me?”)

But on to The Donald. Those of you who have been following the Mad Voter know that I am rather partial to him. I didn’t start that way but I warmed up and continue to. Nevertheless, I suspect Trump has more to lose than any of the other candidates Thursday, if only because he’s the undisputed front runner. He also has more to win, because if he cements his status and even grows it a tad, look out!

Here’s what he has to do. (Okay, not has to. How could I criticize or advise such a phenomenon? Let’s say should or ought to.) One, he ought to demonstrate he’s a good guy. Being rude or mean to the other Republican candidates or former candidates (McCain) — justifiable or not — worked for a while, but I sense it has played out. If he’s going to be nasty, he should direct his attacks at the opposition, from Obama and Hillary on down. Reassure us about what team he’s really on. Failing that, he should go after the media. Everyone loves that. (Just leave me out of it.)

Two, he should demonstrate some mastery of the issues, although not necessarily a lot. I don’t think any of us want The Donald to be a wonk, not that that’s likely. But a few words to let us know he’s actually read the Iran Deal (or a decent précis) and some sense of how he intends to make Mexico’s Nieto pay for the wall (threatening the kleptocrats?) would be helpful. If he pulls that off, he’s probably golden (his favorite color). There won’t be much time to do more anyway.

Now for the other nine who are undoubtedly fuming that this has happened to them (with the exception of Christie and Kasich who are probably thanking their lucky stars they made the top ten) and that they have to deal with Trump instead of each other in the normal manner. But that’s the point. No one wants normal anymore. Not only is normal boring, it hasn’t worked for some time.

This is a particular problem for the Number #2 in the polls, Jeb Bush. Jeb is nothing if not normal. But he has to dig deep to find something about himself that’s different. All of them do, actually. I know this is hard, but they have to pretend Trump isn’t there. Each one has to be alternatively witty and intense, witty (even self-deprecating) to show their humanity and intense to show they care. The issues of the day are pretty clear: immigration, the economy, Obamacare (obviously… and veterans’ health care), foreign policy (Iran, ISIS and, yes, immigration again — it obviously relates — not to mention those old favorites China and Russia), abortion through Planned Parenthood, and education (special points to those who go beyond Common Core, which is only a small part of a massive problem).

One issue to stay far away from is gay marriage. Forget the Supreme Court. That ship sailed about ten years ago. Any minor mileage to be gained out of it in the primaries will be paid for in the general in spades. Religious freedom, on the other hand, is a winner.

An issue on which the candidates can actually distinguish themselves from each other is taxation. Everyone seems to have a solution. Just be sure — wonk alert — we understand what you’re saying. Herman Cain got a lot of mileage off his “9-9-9” plan. Who knows? It could have worked. In any case, giving people something to talk about after the debate (other than Donald) might be a smart idea.

But I digress. Scott Walker, number #3, sits in a very good position. If he shows relaxed confidence, which he generally does, nothing much bad can happen to him. Time is on his side more than on Jeb’s. Ditto for number #4 Huckabee, who should do well in the early primaries because of name recognition and his evangelical base. (He should stay away from the aforementioned gay marriage, however, if he has any serious dreams of the White House.)

#5 Ben Carson is in the enviable position of the spoiler, also of being the Teflon candidate whose personal story makes him difficult to criticize. One way Trump could self-destruct would be to attack Carson. I don’t think he will. But will Carson attack Trump? The eminent neurosurgeon is, of all the candidates, the best situated to do that. Keep an eye open for that.

The three senators — Cruz, Rubio and Paul (#6, #7 and #8) — have different tasks. Cruz, who everybody respects intellectually, has to humanize himself, maybe tell a few jokes or laugh a lot, warm up. Rubio has to get his mojo back that had a lot of us thinking he was the man to beat at the starting gate. He’s got the skills to do that, so let’s see. On his side, he’s been one of the biggest critics of the Iran Deal, which is increasingly unpopular.

Paul has a more serious problem. With that horrific Iran Deal before the Senate and ISIS as insane as ever, history seems to be running against his quasi-isolationist views. He has to convince us he is the person to lead in what may be the most fraught foreign policy presidency since WWII. Critiques of the NSA are starting to ring hollow. He may be the one to drop back into the undercard after this is over.

Christie, on the other hand, could surprise. He’s clearly a happy warrior-style campaigner and seems to relish running. That helps. What doesn’t help is his reputation as an Obama-toady. That’s even more of an albatross after the Iran Deal, which leaves even some Dems in doubt about their president. Christie must lead the pack in his criticism of the administration to win our confidence.

As for Kasich, he’s a clever pol who has shown just that in sneaking into the top ten after only just declaring his candidacy. I don’t like him particularly, but maybe that’s personal. He’s clearly a man to be watched.

That’s it for now. See you after the shows!