Debate Drama in Iowa

by Michael Sean Winters

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In the countdown to the Iowa caucuses next Monday night, the candidates had one last big chance to make a splash: a final debate, scheduled for tomorrow, and sponsored by the Republican Party’s unofficial cheerleading squad, Fox News. But, because this year is not like any other year, the drama expected at the debate has actually preceded it with Donald Trump announcing he was going to boycott.

The prospect of Trump getting into a protracted fight with Fox News puts one in mind of the Iran-Iraq War: Let them have at it. There is no denying that Fox News taunted the Donald, who had questioned the fairness of FIX anchor Megyn Kelly, with a bizarre statement of a kind that should not be issued by an impartial news agency, mocking Trump: “We learned from a secret back channel that the Ayatollah and Putin both intend to treat Donald Trump unfairly when they meet with him if he becomes president — a nefarious source tells us that Trump has his own secret plan to replace the Cabinet with his Twitter followers to see if he should even go to those meetings.” Mind you, I am glad that Fox put forth an analogy between themselves and “the Ayatollah and Putin,” but I do wish they had specified which ayatollah they meant.

Trump’s decision to boycott the debate might strike people as yet more evidence of his unpredictable personality and indeed it is. His supporters, of course, know that about him and like that about him. He is breaking the rules and those supporters think the rules are rigged. Trump may also have just pulled off a large tactical success. Yet again, he commandeered the news cycle, relegating candidates like Marco Rubio or John Kasich, who desperately need some airtime, to the sidelines.

Controlling the news cycle this week is especially important because the candidates are launching their attack ads. One of the ads attacking Trump over his previous views in favor of abortion was particularly effective, especially in Iowa where conservative evangelicals constitute a significant proportion of caucus-goers. No one really knows the value of TV advertising in this age of TiVo. Even before technology allowed us to screen out the ads, I think most people used those sixty seconds to check on the roast, go to the john, etc. But, when news programs replay ads as part of their coverage, that has an impact. Day before yesterday, that is exactly what was happening as CNN, FOX and MSNBC all showed the dueling attack ads at the top of their news programs. Last night, the first fifteen minutes were all about the debate drama.

In previous years, no candidate would dare skip a debate. Too much free airtime. Trump, however, has shown his mastery of the media since Day 1. He could sit out the debate, tweet about it all night, and his tweets would get as much coverage as anything said on stage by the other candidates.

Sen. Ted Cruz, Trump’s chief rival, responded to Trump’s boycott by challenging Trump to a one-on-one debate. It was a smart counterpunch. Trump is unlikely to want to debate the former debate champ Cruz in such a format. But, he can’t be seen to be backing down. I suspect he will note that the Republican National Committee would not sanction such a debate. Still, Cruz got himself inserted into the story and, just as importantly, he found a way to confirm that this is a two-man race with only a few days to go. Voters will have to wonder if a vote for Sen. Marco Rubio or former Gov. Mike Huckabee is a wasted vote on caucus night if Cruz is the only one who can stop Trump.

Brilliant moves always carry risk, and while Trump has attacked Fox News’ Kelly before, and survived the encounter just fine, boycotting a debate sends a different message as well. He cannot appear disrespectful of the voters. A significant proportion of the GOP electorate did not mind when he was disrespectful of Sen. John McCain’s heroic service to our nation. They did not mind when he cast slurs against minorities and disabled people. But, voters expect to be asked for their support and they get properly territorial about the right to make their own choices. If Trump’s rivals are smart, they will focus on this, that Trump’s refusal to attend the debate Thursday is a snub of the voters, not Ms. Kelly.

Pride goeth before the fall, and Trump is the embodiment of pride. Michael Gerson has a great column on this point the other day. But, so far, Trump’s pridefulness has been what attracts voters, not what repels them, even evangelical voters who should know better. Every time Trump has crossed a line, people have predicted he had gone too far and he would drop in the polls. To borrow a phrase from Secretary Hillary Clinton, he is still standing.

The Iowa caucuses are small scale events and they could be decided this year, as in past years, by a few hundred votes in a few precincts. The format requires organization, not just media bluster. No one knows how Trump will fare in Iowa, not even him. But, yesterday, he managed to throw another monkey wrench into the electioneering process, dominate the news cycle again, and who is to say he will not still be standing at the end of it all.   


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