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Donald Trump is winning the Republican nomination race in a walk, and it’s been quite the pleasant stroll.
That’s because his opponents can’t make the most compelling argument against Trump — namely, that for myriad, deep-seated reasons he’s poorly suited to represent the GOP and become the country’s president again.
So, the other top contenders are left with more glancing, indirect criticisms that don’t land with the same force, if they land at all. Trump’s opponents tend to say that he’s not electable, or he didn’t deliver on his promises, or we can’t argue about the past, or we can’t have our attention diverted by distractions or we need a new generation of leadership.
This is different than saying that Trump’s poisonously stupid conduct in office and afterwards was completely unacceptable and alienated the middle of the electorate, that he creates his own private realities, that he will say anything without regard for the truth and that he is profoundly selfish, easily distracted and vengeful.
Any other frontrunning candidate with Trump’s qualities and vulnerabilities would have this case made against him every day on the stump, in TV commercials and during debates. But Republican voters have thrown a defensive shield up around the former president. They reject the fundamental criticisms of Trump, nay, are offended by them, so will punish any Republicans who venture to make them.
Criticizing Trump in the GOP is a little like going after the Pope at a meeting of the College of Cardinals or attacking the King of England during a parliamentary debate in the U.K. — he’s a leader and symbol that people feel personally vested in and protective of.
Running against him is akin to fighting with one arm behind your back, except if you throw a punch with your free hand, people are likely to blame you for being overly pugnacious and want that hand tied up, too.
In this context, the electability argument has loomed large. It’s a way of implicitly saying, “Gosh, we all love Donald Trump and wish he’d become president again, but it’s a real shame that it can’t happen.”
There are several problems with this line of attack. One, it’s not clear that it’s true. Yes, Trump has massive baggage and would be an electorally risky choice, but he ran a close race against Biden in 2020, and it’s not crazy to think a rematch would be close again.
Two, the early general election polling isn’t cooperating. In the RealClearPolitics polling average, Trump trails Biden by just .9 percent. Perhaps that would change next year when Democrats turn their political guns on Trump in earnest or as Trump faces potential criminal trials and guilty verdicts. But the data point that everyone uses as the most ready reference on electability looks good for Trump.
It’s especially awkward for Ron DeSantis to make the electability argument, by the way, when he is polling more poorly against Biden and trailing Trump badly.
Three, after Trump defied the conventional wisdom and prevailed against Hillary Clinton in 2016 in a victory that instantly attained mythical status in the GOP, many Republicans aren’t going to believe he can’t win, no matter what the polls or analysts say.
Finally, according to a recent Morning Consult poll, 62 percent of Republicans think Trump is the most electable Republican candidate and just 13 percent think the same of DeSantis. This roughly tracks with the level of support that the two have in the primary, suggesting that people work their way backward on the electability question — they decide whom they support and then conclude that is the candidate who is electable.
The other day in Iowa, DeSantis was asked by a voter why he should be chosen instead of Trump. The DeSantis answer was a careful exercise in indirection. Besides electability, the Florida governor said that, unlike Trump, he’d be able to serve two terms, he’d appoint good people and he’d follow through on his promises.
These are all fair enough, but not exactly compelling. The case that Trump would become a lame duck is attenuated. Most Republicans are thinking of getting rid of Biden as of January 2025, not what Trump’s standing would be after the 2026 midterms when, traditionally, lame-duck status would really kick in. Also, since everyone in the party is so afraid of Trump, it’s hard to imagine him ever being much of a lame duck.
Nor do most Republicans think Trump appointed poor people in his first term — Mike Pompeo, Betsy DeVos and Bill Barr, for instance, were no slouches (although it’s going to be difficult to find cabinet secretaries of similar caliber a second time around). Finally, between Trump’s judges, anti-abortion policies, bombing campaign against ISIS and tough border policies, among other things, most Republicans think he followed through on his promises.
The DeSantis criticisms are like shadows, as if on the walls of Plato’s cave, of more direct criticisms of Trump’s handling of himself and people around him that he doesn’t dare make.
Everyone has seen what’s happened to Chris Christie. The most vocal anti-Trump candidate in the field has ticked up in New Hampshire polling, but has a stratospheric unfavorable rating of 73 percent among Republicans, according to a buzzy Wall Street Journal poll. The latest CNN poll found that two-thirds of Republicans say they would never support him. Christie made the correct point about Trump’s indictments during the first Republican debate — that whatever you think of them, the underlying conduct is awful — and got poor ratings for his performance from voters.
The root of the problem is that Republicans really like Trump and believe, even more than ever after the indictments, that he is being treated unfairly. The conundrum is that it’s impossible to bring Trump’s 75 percent favorable rating down without attacking him, but attacking him brings the possibility of inadvertently getting lumped in with the people treating him unfairly, and hurting yourself more than Trump.
While Trump’s opponents try to figure this one out, he’s enjoying a walk in the park.