First published in The Hill.
The first Republican presidential primary debate is two days away, and for the first time ever it comes on the heels of multiple indictments of a leading candidate. That candidate, former President Trump, may skip the debate in lieu of an online interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, according to the New York Times.
But his legal predicament will be center stage whether the man himself shows up or not.
In the warmup to the debate, conservative Republicans like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have been trying out a new argument about Trump’s alleged crimes: The voters, not the courts, should decide if he has done wrong. The idea that a criminal prosecution can or should be derailed by popular vote is so weird that it’s hard to believe these two are serious.
It’s also in glaring contrast to what leading Republicans said when Trump was impeached the second time, also on grounds related to his attempt to overturn the election. Back then, most of them refused to convict, and some of the loudest voices came from GOP senators like Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Marco Rubio insisting the courts should decide Trump’s guilt.
Well, now the courts are set to do that, leaving GOP leaders to squirm out of a bind of their own creation.
This is a real challenge for Republican presidential candidates who are not Trump and who purport to represent a party of law and order. With few exceptions — former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and former Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas) — they have shown the backbone of amoebas when it comes to Trump. A newly-leaked memo from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R) side specifying that DeSantis should “defend” Trump at this week’s debate suggests that he’ll stay in the spineless camp. And Hutchinson and Hurd might not even make the cut for the first debate. That means most of the people onstage could be struggling.
Struggling, because the GOP has very weak strategies to defend its moral authority on justice while being led by a criminal defendant. It can rail that violent crime is at “all-time highs” (it’s not), blaming progressive leaders. We’ve been hearing the right’s complaints about crime in blue states for years, and those claims are disingenuous; there is plenty of evidence that when it comes to murder rates, the problem is worse in red states than in blue ones.
Or it can dive deep into false equivalencies that the party has virtually patented lately: Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and Hillary Clinton lost elections and they weren’t happy about it either. But they weren’t accused of launching all-out criminal efforts to overturn the results. Hunter Biden has legal problems too. Yes, but he’s a private citizen and there’s been no evidence the president took part in or benefited from his business deals.
It’s a safe bet some or all of these strategies will be on display on the debate stage. Trump and his alleged crimes loom so large that we’ll all be listening to hear how the GOP plans to worm its way out of this one.
And that’s sad because what we should be listening for are answers to questions like these:
What’s your plan to ensure all Americans can access health care? Do you support a national ban on abortion? What’s the plan to keep the momentum going on job creation, given the record-low unemployment rates achieved under the Biden administration? What’s the plan to slow down the pace of climate change? Will the U.S. uphold its moral and strategic commitment to Ukraine?
As someone who has run for and held office as a Democrat, it doesn’t make me happy to see the Republican Party like this. I strongly believe that our system of government needs healthy, competitive parties and serious policy debates. That can’t happen when one party is disintegrating into a cult of personality around a single authoritarian figure. It’s even worse when a party thinks the only way to save its hero is to throw away any laws and norms that get in his way, including defunding the pesky FBI. Then all bets are off.
Wednesday’s debate will provide clues as to whether this will continue. Americans will be watching.