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Trump afraid to debate?

Peggy, you know who's also out of political shape? You!

Trump's a complete nutball who's assured the nomination. He has zero competition, especially since DeSantis has famously blown himself to bits. Trump isn't afraid; he realizes there's zero necessity or upside to arguing with a bunch of lightweights on stage.

Mr. Mean is also assured of getting his ass kicked in the general election, most likely by a man who doesn't know what day of the week it is.

Of Course Trump Is Afraid to Debate

It isn’t 2016 anymore. He’s older and out of political shape, and his absence would hurt his rivals.

Peggy Noonan, WSJ

May 4, 2023 6:44 pm ET

GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump will be going on CNN next week, for a live Town Hall, for several reasons:

To mix it up, like the old days. To be the dramatic focus of attention in a potentially sparky environment, like the old days. To remind people of positive things they experienced during his administration. To go at Joe Biden. To show a contrast with Ron DeSantis, who avoids mainstream media—Mr. Trump has no fear of them. To attempt to stanch the bleeding among independents.

A sophisticated friend of his wondered this week what attitude Mr. Trump will bring to the stage. Will he double down or act as if he’s learned some lessons? Will he say what he always says about Jan. 6 and the pandemic, or will he go broader, perhaps even share a hindsight regret? The friend thought the latter route smarter—it would be fresh, and independents might say “huh, interesting”—but expressed no confidence it would happen. I think that was a hint that if Mr. Trump doesn’t present himself as a man who’s learned some lessons, his prospects aren’t good.

Reports continue from Trumpworld that he will skip the first few Republican primary debates, and has told the Republican National Committee as much. This should surprise no one. This isn’t The Master jerking around the organizers to win concessions—How about only Trump speaks and the rest express their thoughts in pantomime?—it is sheer and obvious calculation. He’s leading, his competitors are trailing; they need it, he doesn’t; he’s famous, they aren’t. One of them could land a shot and ding his mystique. Why expose himself? The audience grows if he shows, shrinks if he doesn’t; his absence hurts his rivals. And he can always counterprogram, going live on another network while the debate is on. (I have a rooting interest: The second debate is at the Reagan Library, where I’m on the board.)

But I think the real reason he might skip the debates is that he’s scared of being up there on stage for two hours in an uncontrolled environment with a group of people who are gunning for him. He hasn’t had to do that since 2016. The last time he did, he had nothing to lose. His competitors flailed—he was an unknown quantity; they didn’t know what they were up against. He’s older now, 77 in June. He’s out of political shape. He’s throwing reporters’ phones. He mostly does venues he can control—rallies.

When I was writing this I saw what Chris Christie said on Hugh Hewitt’s show: “If he really cares about the country, then he’s going to get up there, and he shouldn’t be afraid. I’m sorry to see that Donald Trump feels like if he gets on the stage, he’s at risk of losing his lead. If, in fact, his ideas are so great, if his leadership is so outstanding, then his lead will only increase. . . . But obviously he’s afraid. He’s afraid to get on the stage against people who are serious. . . . And if he’s afraid he has no business being president.”

That’s a taunt that’s the truth. If Mr. Christie gets in, it would be as an undervalued executive talent who’s learned a few lessons and is a street fighter. When I think of him in debate with Mr. Trump, I think of the old World War II movies in which the captain of the sub is at the periscope and sees the enemy warship. “Right full rudder.” “Load torpedo bay.” “Fire torpedo one.” You see the straight line going underwater at the fat belly of the ship. Kaboom.

The other candidates, announced and potential, are leery of Mr. Trump—his pull with their own supporters, his success as the nickname assassin. But Mr. Christie would open up a can of Jersey on him.

There’s an old boxing saying attributed (with varying language) to Joe Louis and Mike Tyson: Everyone has a plan until he gets punched in the face. Donald Trump has never had to rethink his plan because he never took it full in the face. He doesn’t have to take what he dishes out. He’s never been the focus, onstage, of a serious, capable, sustained assault on policy or comportment. No one on his side has ever challenged him to his face on how and why he failed as president.

No one knows if he could take it. He doesn’t know.

Trump supporters think in terms of wrestling: “To be the man, you gotta beat the man.” To defeat Mr. Trump you have to attack him. But here, they say, is the problem: If you attack Mr. Trump, his base will never forgive you.

They say this as a warning: Damage Mr. Trump and you seal your own fate.

But Donald Trump isn’t some protected species, he’s a politician subject to the same rules of politics as anyone else. If you go at him successfully you’re a hero to many, a villain to some, and you move from there. He should be challenged like anyone else, not treated like a golden egg on a down pillow.

The presidency requires a fight. It doesn’t need your deft little jabs, your prudent self-protectiveness and indirect critiques.

I don’t think Mr. Trump’s people understand the immovable boulder in the path of a Trump election. It’s not the chaos, the impeachments, the scandal—at this point no one can keep them or their outcomes straight. It’s the actions he took from Nov. 3, 2020, through Jan. 6, 2021—the fraudulent attempts to subvert the election, culminating in the violent overrunning of the U.S. Capitol. Which an entire nation, very much including Trump people, watched in honest horror.

Mr. Trump’s people see this as a political problem, a messaging problem, and not what it is, a moral one. But it is the thing Mr. Trump can never get past. I believe Republicans who are soft Trump supporters, who feel drawn in his direction out of loyalty or indignation at his enemies but who aren’t settled or sure, must begin to see that the American people won’t let that man back in the White House. Because they know he’ll try to do it again, only more competently, next time.

Most of those around Mr. Trump know his problems—bad judgment, little understanding of history, disordered ego. They’re for him for their own reasons. But to their credit, they never say, “He’s wiser than he was in his first administration,” or “He’s mellowed,” or “This is a good man.”

When your own people can’t say these things, that is a weakness. What they do believe, and will say, is the Democrats are worse, the media is worse, and Mr. Trump was never treated fairly. That is their sole unifying principle.

Those around Joe Biden believe in Mr. Trump, in that they believe they can take him. He can take Mr. Trump again. They can’t know that about other candidates but they know it of Mr. Trump because he does what Mr. Biden has long struggled to do, rally and unify the Democratic base. They long to read, “Trump Wins GOP Nomination.” It means the November headline is “Biden Re-Elected.” How odd it would be for Republicans at this point in history to give Democrats what they so long for.

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