Skipping debates worked for Trump

Rich Lowry, syndicated columnist

Woody Allen said 90% of life is showing up. Donald Trump is proving that he overshot the mark considerably.

The former president has paid no discernible price for skipping the Republican debates. Arguably, he’s been winning them by diminishing the rest of the field through his absence, while his polling has held steady or gone up a little.

The latest forum, at the Reagan Library, will not be long remembered, or perhaps remembered at all.

The candidates tended either to overpromise about what they’d do as president in frenzied, rapid-fire fashion, or to talk over one another in squabbles difficult to watch or listen to.

If Trump was hoping that, if he failed to show, his opponents would tear at each other in pursuit of marginal advantage in the race for second, third or fourth place, it hardly could have gone better.

In fact, it went so swimmingly that one of Trump’s advisors took the opportunity to announce that he won’t show up for the third debate, scheduled for November in Miami, either. Why mess with a successful formula?

It’s another instance where Trump has a set of political rules all to himself. Everyone else has been desperate to secure a place, even at the farthest edge, of the debate stage, while Trump has foregone an opportunity to occupy its center.

The difference between Trump and the other candidates is that they seek attention, but Trump himself is attention. His presence makes something an event, whereas they hope to be at the event.

This isn’t a criticism of the other candidates who almost all are public-spirited people. It’s simply a fact of life as they grapple with running against a de facto incumbent president who is also a massive celebrity.

Chris Christie hoped to take down Trump in the debates, but now many of his anti-Trump gibes are meant to goad Trump into showing up or to slam him for not doing so.

The former New Jersey governor spoke directly to Trump at one point in the debate, saying that he knew he was watching, which was likely to be true, assuming Trump himself hadn’t grown tired of the unintelligible crosstalk and bootless and petty arguments.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with contention, by the way. Arguments can be clarifying and important, although not so much if they are carefully prepared attacks on an opponent based on not terribly significant opposition research.

Is it a good thing for the Republican Party that its frontrunner won’t show up at, traditionally, some of the highest profile, most consequential events of the campaign season? No. It is clearly a disservice to the voters and to the process. Chris Christie and Ron DeSantis, who has also been pressing the point, are both right about this.

It is insulting to Republican voters that Trump feels that he doesn’t need to show them the basic consideration of standing on a debate stage for two hours. But what is to be done if Republican voters refuse to be insulted?

The Trump camp is upping the ante by asserting the debates are affirmatively bad things.

“The RNC should immediately put an end to any further primary debates,” Trump advisor Chris LaCivita said, “so we can train our fire on Crooked Joe Biden and quit wasting time and money that could be going to evicting Biden from the White Hou

Sure, and maybe there should be no caucuses or primaries, either. They are such a hassle.

While Trump doesn’t deserve a coronation, a significant portion of Republican voters are ready to outfit him with St. Edward’s Crown.

There’s no good political answer for this phenomenon, except for the other candidates to keep making their case, hope there’s a breakout or the field begins to winnow — and, yes, continue to show up at the debates, whether the frontrunner, calculating his own self-interest above all, deigns to make an appearance.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Rich Lowry is on Twitter @RichLowry.


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