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The Republican Primaries Without Trump: A Preview


There are several reasons why Donald Trump’s decision to pout on the sidelines during the final Republican debate before the Iowa Caucus is a bad idea. The biggest reason is that this will give us our first real opportunity to see what the Republican contest looks like without him in it. And that’s going to be great.

Here are four things to look for in tonight’s Trumpless debate—and its effect on the contest in Iowa.

1) Will the usual rules apply again?

Imagine if, instead of sniping back and forth about the latest outrageous thing Donald Trump said, the debate can actually focus on ideas, public policy, and the candidates’ records—just like they used to before the Republican primaries were turned into a reality TV show.

I know: boring, right? And that would be awesome. Making good decisions about whom to vote for requires being informed, thinking about the issues, and making difficult judgments of character. A debate should engage our brains and not just our emotions.

We may have a boring debate on policy, which would be awesome.

We have a better chance at that with the field that is likely to be on stage tonight, which will include candidates who have spent their careers developing informed and substantive views on policy, and who represent a diverse set of ideologies, backgrounds, and temperaments. There is the Tea Party firebrand Ted Cruz, the great libertarian hope Rand Paul, the foreign policy interventionist Marco Rubio, the moderate conservative establishment type Jeb Bush, the liberal Republican John Kasich, the East Coast tough guy Chris Christie, and the gentle, witty Dr. Carson. If they can talk about the issues and how they approach them, it offers a good range of choices to the voters, which is exactly what the primaries are supposed to do.

But this assumes the candidates follow the Voldemort Rule put forward by Jennifer Rubin. They should treat Trump as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named and make sure the debate is not all about him even in his absence.

2) Will Trump’s absence help Rubio?

If this debate isn’t all about Trump, who is it about?

Ted Cruz has been working hard for the past few days to make this a two-man race, presenting himself as the only man who can save us from Trump. Hence his challenge to debate Trump separately, one-on-one, cutting out all of the other challengers. But tonight’s debate undermines that plan.

This could become the Cruz vs. Rubio matchup it should have been all along.

In the expected line-up above, it’s hard not to see this becoming the Cruz vs. Rubio matchup it probably should have been all along. Nobody else has the same level of support, ability to perform in a debate (sorry, Jeb), or potential to appeal to the typical Iowa voter (sorry, Chris Christie). Consider also that Rubio has recently received a high-profile endorsement from the Des Moines Register and now has Iowa Senator Joni Ernst campaigning for him. A lot of Iowans are going to be interested in seeing more of him—just at the point when Trump is getting out of his way.

All of which is saying that Trump’s absence now, at this critical point, makes it much more likely that the contest will take on the form it might have had if he had been absent all along.

3) Will Megyn Kelly be our Luke Skywalker?

As I have been arguing, Trump’s whole campaign depends on the Trump Media Death Star, his ability to dominate the media to the exclusion of all other candidates. He is hoping that his celebrity can override the traditional rules and methods of campaigning.

But Trump’s supporters are not traditional voters or caucus-goers, and they will need reminding and prodding to make sure they show up next week in sufficient numbers, which would be astonishingly large numbers by historical standards. The whispers in Iowa, however, are that Trump has very little in the way of a “get out the vote” operation, the ground game necessary to keep track of all of a candidate’s supporters and get them to show up to vote. Maybe Trump will bring lots of new people to the caucuses, similar to what Obama accomplished in Iowa in 2008. Then again, there has been no surge in new voter registrations the way there was before Obama’s surprise win there in 2008. So maybe not.

If it’s not based on a traditional ground game, a Trump win will have to depend on the overwhelming power of his media presence. But now he’s ducking out of the last big event Iowans are going to be watching on their televisions just before the caucus. And all because Megyn Kelly got under his skin, apparently by being a pretty girl who doesn’t fall at his feet impressed by his billions.

Which just might make Megyn Kelly our Luke Skywalker—the one person who finds Trump’s fatal flaw and defeats his Media Death Star at the last minute.

4) Is this all just WWE?

Then again, Trump is a showman, whose recent media stardom includes appearances with World Wrestling Entertainment, the fake professional wrestling outfit.

It would be a typical WWE stunt to script a feud between the referee and one of the fighters, to have the fighter refuse to show up and leave the crowd waiting—only to have him sweep in at the last moment to thunderous applause.

With Trump, it’s hard to tell the difference between irrationality and calculation.

So maybe Trump isn’t storming off in an irrational fit and is just pumping up the fake drama for effect. Or maybe he really did storm off, but woke up this morning and realized it would make good drama to show up anyway. I doubt Fox could turn him away or refuse to put out an extra podium for him. (If he does show up, I suggest that they find a ratty old spare podium somewhere—something very low-rent and shabby—and stick that up on stage for him. Because that would make for good drama, too.) Poe’s Law states that it is often impossible to tell the difference between sincere belief and parody. Maybe we need Trump’s Law to describe the indecipherable line—in a reality TV show or the rule of an authoritarian strongman—between actual irrational behavior and calculated artificial drama.

On the other hand, this is not the fake, scripted drama of the WWE, where Trump can negotiate with Vince McMahon and demand that they make him look good. If he shows up tonight, it would look like a serious climb-down for him. And it would prompt a lot of jibes about his vaunted powers as a negotiator. How is he going to face down Vladimir Putin if he can’t face down Megyn Kelly?

But I hope that thought will just be too much for him, that he won’t be able to stand the idea of giving in to a girl, and that he will prefer to stay home and claim he defeated Fox because they had lower ratings without him. Which will be pretty poor compensation for everything his debate absence will cost him.

I hope this happens, because I think we deserve a chance to see, just this once, what the Republican field looks like with only real Republicans in it.

Follow Robert on Twitter.