Rantz: Donald Trump’s debate miscalculation is an unforced error

Aug 22, 2023, 5:55 PM

Trump debate...

Former President Donald J. Trump at the first tee during the final round of LIV Golf Bedminster on August 13, 2023 at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

(Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

If the presidential election were held today, former president Donald Trump would see a deserved Electoral College victory. But we’re not even past the primary season and a lot can change between now and next November. It’s an unforced error for Trump to skip Wednesday night’s debate.

Inflation is hurting American families. Radical Left policies are responsible for big-city crime waves, out-of-control homelessness, and the drug epidemic. Americans remember their lives under Trump and they were in much better shape then than they are under President Joe Biden. They clearly did not like Trump’s personality or tweets, but it’s considerably less embarrassing than a president who can’t complete sentences or thoughts, consistently lies about his son’s corruption (and his own complicity), and falls asleep when honoring those who lost their lives in the Maui fires (which he ignored for two weeks).

But Trump is ceding the stage to exceptional candidates who could turn momentum their way during the debate. And they won’t focus the entire debate on attacking Trump, which they might have been forced to if Trump were there. They can now, for the first time to a national audience, define their campaigns on their own terms.

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The Trump debate gamble

Trump is so far ahead in the polls that he believes he has nothing to gain by showing up to the debates, which will air live on KTTH 770 AM, with analysis starting at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday. He’s certainly correct that he could lose support on the debate stage due to a poor performance or being outshined by others.

But Trump is a strong debater with a commanding presence and biting humor. And by attending, the entire debate would be about him, his campaign, and his record. That benefits the former president. What doesn’t benefit him? Candidates arguing, without his interjections or response, that Trump was a great president but is now unelectable.

Trump sucks the oxygen out of any room. He’s the focus. On a debate stage, media coverage would exclusively focus on him. He’d have control over the soundbites and it would get more coverage than any of his campaign speeches would garner. He’d reach people who he doesn’t normally reach. More importantly, he could defy expectations fairly easily given how dishonestly the left-wing press portrays him. He’s now handed over airtime and a narrative to other candidates for the media to get behind.

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Candidates can gain momentum

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has the most to gain. He’s a strong conservative leader with an impressive track record in Florida. While the Radical Left pretend he’s a fascist (a word they can’t spell, let alone define), Americans are flocking to his state for a reason. They’re leaving New York and California for DeSantis country. If he delivers a strong performance, the narrative of a struggling campaign is turned on its head. The new framing will be about a surging DeSantis and the emerging threat to Trump.

If Vivek Ramaswamy shines, he’ll take the country by storm. Most people don’t know who he is, yet he’s been gaining traction in the polls because he impresses those who hear him. He won’t be competing for airtime during the debate because Trump isn’t there. This allows him to be center stage, alongside DeSantis.

Both Senator Tim Scott and former Ambassador Nikki Haley are intensely likable, have amazing backstories, and are razor-sharp. They won’t have to face added scrutiny for challenging the president they formerly backed (and, for Haley, worked for). Former vice president Mike Pence, for his part, gets to avoid the awkward moments of being on the same stage as Trump. They’ll have a better time shaping their campaigns to the American people without having to worry about Trump.

Former governor Chris Christie, looking to curry favor with network executives eager to hire another Never Trump Republican, has one mode: attack Trump. Calling the former president a coward for not showing up only goes so far, but it will earn media coverage that could hurt Trump amongst independents (and moderate Republicans) who do think debating opponents is a basic expectation of any candidate who isn’t the incumbent.

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Getting in the way of the media

It’s undoubtedly true that no matter what, left-wing media would attack Trump post-debate if he participated. But he could have been able to starve them of their most biting commentary if he provided them with a presidential performance.

It further erodes left-wing media’s influence when the American people hear the unhinged hatred of Trump coming from activist-journalists if they viewed his performance as positive. One can dismiss this analysis with a claim that everyone already has an opinion of Trump and that there’s little he can do to change that.

But with four politically-motivated indictments, he’s already generating sympathy from Americans who are rightly disgusted by the politicization of the criminal justice system to go after a political rival of the president. And this concern is coming from people who were not previously supportive of the president. On that stage, he’d have support from opponents calling out the indictments. That is a powerful message that helps the former president.

Trump deciding to turn himself in on Thursday as counter-programming to post-debate coverage is a smart move. But I suspect the media will still frame it around him not doing the debates. They’ll say while he was busy getting ready to post bail, Candidate X was the standout on the debate stage. And Fox News, which has more influence over conservative voters than MSNBC and CNN, will not go wall-to-wall on covering the indictment.

The Biden factor

Trump could have been the only story to come out of the debate. Now there’s room for candidates to gain the spotlight. The media will develop a narrative that their campaigns now threaten Trump. True or false, media narratives influence voters’ perceptions of campaigns.

Trump doesn’t have a plurality of support amongst Republicans. The crowd of candidates will dwindle down to two or three after the first few contests. Where do Christie and Pence supporters go when they drop out? Likely DeSantis. That fuels his campaign even more.

And while Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina seem like they’ll be clear victories for Trump, the margins will matter. As candidates drop out, one or two opponents may start gaining traction. That could get voters thinking, no matter how positive they feel about Trump, if they should back another candidate who would have a better shot at winning the presidency. Complicating matters for voters is that whomever emerges as the biggest threat to Trump will undoubtedly point out that they’d pardon Trump and clean out the corruption in the DOJ.

Can Trump manage to skip one or two debates without much political pain? Yes. But it’s unclear how much dodging he can get away with. And, much worse, assuming Trump advances to the general (which I still think is likely), it’ll take the sting out of his complaints when Biden refuses to debate Trump.

Biden can’t make it through a speech with a teleprompter. Do you think he can take on Trump in his condition? If Trump didn’t have to debate, Biden could say he doesn’t have to either. He’ll simply claim you already know the character of both candidates, so what’s the point? Trump calling Biden a coward for skipping doesn’t have the same punch given he skipped debates too. And, of course, Trump will be fighting not just Biden but the left-wing media. Humiliating Biden on stage would do his campaign wonders, making a vote for Trump so much easier for those uneasy about Trump’s personality, but concerned over Biden’s health and the poor direction he’s taking the country.

Listen to The Jason Rantz Show on weekday afternoons from 3:00 p.m.–7:00 p.m. on KTTH 770 AM (HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). He is the author of the book “What’s Killing America: Inside the Radical Left’s Tragic Destruction of Our Cities.” Subscribe to the podcast. Follow @JasonRantz on X (formerly Twitter)Instagram, and Facebook. Check back frequently for more news and analysis.

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Rantz: Donald Trump’s debate miscalculation is an unforced error