Good day Austin:
Thursday’s seventh Republican presidential debate Thursday night in Des Moines was going to be huge.
The setup could hardly be better.
The caucuses – the first actual voting of the 2016 presidential campaign – are Monday.
Donald Trump is the front-runner by a wide margin nationally and probably a small margin in Iowa, where, because they are caucuses, turnout is especially low and hard to predict.
About the only thing that stands between Trump and the Republican nomination and perhaps the presidency and, I guess, world domination, is Ted Cruz and his amazing, Princeton-debate-sharpened, and Texas-solicitor-general-arguing-before-the-Supreme-Court-Bar-honed brain.
One could imagine Thursday night all the previous American presidents up in presidential heaven leaning over their clouds and cheering, Go Ted Go, lest their hallowed office be retroactively devalued by an absurdist Trump reign.
And Trump did his part, starting the day Tuesday with some superior smack talk on Morning Joe to hype the fight.
I think Ted’s a nasty guy. People don’t like him at all.
And Ted Cruz lies. He’s a liar. That’s why nobody likes him.
And much, much more.
But then, hours later, Trump announces he’s out – bye-bye – he won’t participate in the debate, that he’ll hold his own event, opposite it, and raise money for Wounded Warriors.
Trump wasn’t happy because Fox wouldn’t budge on his insistence that they drop Megyn Kelly as one of the debate moderators, because he doesn’t feel she treated him fairly at the first Fox debate and since then.
But, as the New York Times reported:
(W)hat seemed to really draw the ire of Mr. Trump was two statements put out by the network Tuesday morning. In one, Roger Ailes, the chairman and chief executive of Fox News, personally weighed in, saying in a statement that “Megyn Kelly is an excellent journalist and the entire network stands behind her — she will absolutely be on the debate stage on Thursday night.”
A statement from the network was even harsher, invoking President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and Iran’s supreme leader: “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.”
Mr. Trump alluded to those two statements in a news conference on Tuesday before an event here, calling them “wise guy” and adding, “I said bye-bye.” He did not mention his decision not to attend the debate at his two rallies in Iowa.
My first reaction was letdown.
I was looking forward to the Trump-Cruz showdown as an observer and as a reporter.
It was gonna be great.
And, my initial impulse was that Trump wasn’t seeing the forest for the trees.
All the momentum seemed to be with him. Here he was on the precipice of what could be a decisive victory. And he was getting distracted by this argument over Megyn Kelly, who got the better of Trump in their last confrontation in every venue except the one that mattered – Trump’s public.
That’s pretty much the way it’s gone since Trump announced June 16. Everything he has done or said was supposed to kill him, and every single time, almost without exception, it made him stronger.
The day after Donald Trump announced his candidacy, First Reading began as follows:
First there was Andy Kaufman, wrestling women.
Then there was Joaquin Phoenix, pretending to abandon acting for hip hop.
Now comes Donald Trump, announcing yesterday that he is running for president.
As with Kaufman and Phoenix, it is impossible, as it is happening, to know for sure whether what he is doing is for real or performance art.
That’s the whole point. That’s central to the art form.
Indeed, we may not know until well into his second term as president whether Trump is putting us on.
But the performance is so broad, so over-the-top, that one has to assume Trump is winking at us all, that we all are, in essence, in on the joke.
That winking is what’s called, in professional wrestling, kayfabe, and Donald Trump, a member of the pro wrestling Hall of Fame, has to be the King of Kayfabe
Just think of Ted Cruz as Vince McMahon.
Here from Dan O’Sullivan in a 2014 piece in Jacobin magazine, Money in the Bank: The story of pro wrestling in the twentieth century is the story of American capitalism.
There are competing theories as to the origin of the term “kayfabe,” beyond its provenance in the strange lingo of the carnivals from which American pro wrestling emerged. But as to the meaning, there is no confusion; it is the central axiom of the business. As explained by journalist David “The Masked Man” Shoemaker, kayfabe is “the wrestlers’ adherence to the big lie, the insistence that the unreal is real . . . the abiding dogma of the pro wrestling industry.”
And the flip side of kayfabe is that, in an industry where the unreal is real, where Hulk Hogan is a “real American” fighting for the rights of every man, truth wears a mask.
At the end of December I wrote a First Reading: From WrestleMania to the White House, is Donald Trump the kayfabe candidate for president.
Trump’s pro wrestling Hall of Fame status as well as anything explains the otherwise seemingly inexplicable political spectacle that has been unfolding in the space usually occupied by the quadrennial presidential campaign.
After news broke that Trump was bailing on the debate, Ted Cruz, on Marc Levin’s radio show and Sean Hannity’s FOX TV show, and in his subsequent appearances on the campaign trail, ridiculed Trump’s decision and challenged him to a “mano a mano” debate.
I was there when he did it at his last stop of the day, last night at a well-attended event hall in Koesaqua, Iowa.
It’s not fair to judge a place on a first impression on a very cold winter’s night, but Koesaqua, home to 1,000 souls, looked a little rough around the edges, and more Pottersville than Bedford Falls, with a bounty of taverns within a couple blocks of the Cruz event.
Here was Cruz delivering his challenge to Trump.
One or the other of us is going to win the state of Iowa, and I’ll tell you right now, that’s why Donald is not showing up. It has nothing to do with Megan Kelly and some questions she asked back in August. I mean good God, nobody is that trivial. Nobody is – `You said something mean to me back in August I’m going to take my toys and go home.’
After challenging Trump to a one-on-one debate, Cruz invited his audience to go his campaign’s new Ducking Donald page to try to coax Trump to accept the challenge.
“By the way,” Cruz said. ” You have to have fun in a campaign.”
On MSNBC today, Cruz spokesman Rick Tyler, picked up the trash talk about Trump
His debate performances have been mediocre at best.
People are now finding out what the real Donald Trump is. Who he is and what he’s like. This is not very becoming of a presidential candidate.
I don’t know how he endears himself to Iowa voters when he won’t get on the stage. It’s the one opportunity voters have to see all the candidates together. It’s the best opportunity for them to make a decision.
He’s not going to be there.
It’s sort of typical of Donald Trump.
Now, he’s talking about ratings and how much Fox makes. That has nothing to do with it. This is about the men and women who are running for the nomination of the Republican party and the voters who want an opportunity to discern for themselves who is the best leader.
It’s a shame that Donald Trump’s erratic behavior is becoming a story instead of the issues that Iowans care about.
The whole thing looks sort of petty, small and childish, because now it’s, `let’s see how many people watch if I’m not there, let’s see how much money you make if I’m not here.’ This has to do with who is going to be the leader of the free world.
He’s supposed to be a greatest negotiator in the world. But he’s lost this negotiation because he’s not even going to be on the stage.
If Donald Trump wants to make this about himself, and do a competing event, instead of about the country, he is welcome to do that, but I think he is going to pay a price.
Well, we’ll see.
On Morning Joe, the consensus was that, once again, Trump was winning – dominating news coverage, “showing strength – that’s his brand,” and leaving Cruz as the most likely target of all the other candidates on the debate stage.
“This is the fattest fastball down the middle of the plate for Trump,” said Joe Scarborough.
And, Willie Geist suggested that Trump might yet make a late, pro wrestling-style entry into the ring for Thursday’s debate.
I discount the idea being promoted by Cruz and Co. that they have Trump on the ropes and he’s running scared. Cruz is a more skilled, classic debater, but Trump has done fine and his steady climb has come along with unprecedented viewership for those debate, mostly thanks to him.
Skipping the debate is a gamble for Trump. Fox is the prime news source of the Republican base and, beginning with Sean Hannity last night, it is devoting a lot of time to bashing Trump since he said he won’t participate.
But the flip side of that, is that Trump is showing off that, whatever his motivation, he is willing to take on, in Fox, a powerful interest in his own party that no other Republican would dare to (and that kind of “courage” is supposed to be Cruz’s franchise).
But the primary setback for Cruz if Trump is a no-show is that it denies him the opportunity to deliver a knockout punch against Trump, to have that, “You are no Jack Kennedy” debate moment that would be endlessly replayed and might have a decisive impact on the outcome of the caucuses.
No matter how well crafted and well delivered Cruz’s lines are Thursday, they will not land with quite the same impact if Trump is not there on the stage.
And, at this point, Cruz’s campaign is as much about stopping Trump as promoting himself.
As David Brody of the Christian Broadcast Network reported, Cruz said as much during a gathering of pastors Monday in Des Moines.
Ted Cruz: “We talked before about the politics of this being effectively a two-man race between me and Donald Trump, let me talk for a moment if you happen to be thinking about another candidate beyond the two of us. There are a lot of good people in this race. There are a lot of people who I like, who I respect, who are friends of mine, who I have no intention of insulting or denigrating. But I will say right now, between Donald and me, this is neck and neck. It is an absolute dead heat. And if Donald wins Iowa, he right now has a substantial lead in New Hampshire, if he went on to win New Hampshire as well, there is a very good chance he could be unstoppable and be our nominee. And the next seven days in Iowa will determine whether or not that happens. So even if you’re thinking about another candidate, the simple reality is there’s only one campaign that can beat Trump in this state, and if conservatives simply stand up and unite, that’s everything.”
PERRY SIGNS A BIBLE
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry spoke passionately on behalf of Cruz in Koesaqua.
Before he spoke, a young man asked Perry to sign his Bible, and Perry, with careful attention, obliged.
Afterward, I saw the young thumbing through his Bible.
I introduced myself and asked if I could see where Perry signed it.
Here is the scripture Perry cited.
Matthew 22:37-38New International Version (NIV)
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment.
The boy’s name is David Clark.
I asked if he was from Koesaqua.
He said, no, he was from Centerville, an hour west of here.
I had just come from Centerville, where Cruz and Perry had an event earlier in the day at the elegant old Continental Hotel on “the largest continuous town square in the world, earning that designation because there are no stoplights or stop signs in the Square.”
The square was dedicated in 1904 and seemed in great shape.
Centerville brought to mind River City in The Music Man.
I lit up when David mentioned Centerville, and told him what a sweet place I thought his hometown was.
No, David said, it’s not.
“It’s the meth capital,” he said.
I caught my breath. I was stunned.
But, I said, it seemed such a sweet and innocent place.
“You wouldn’t think so if you’d been there as long as I have,” he said.
David is nine.
There really is trouble in River City.
(From Iowa Public Television, a report on meth addiction in Southeast Iowa.)