One of the things in which political junkies like me too often indulge is idle speculation about how campaign events shape themselves and whether what we are watching is, in fact, ultimately some candidate’s devious plan. It’s pointless, I know, but it’s fun, so I’m going to indulge myself.
I wonder whether Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump planned in advance what we are now seeing regarding the NewsMax debate Trump was supposed to moderate in Iowa on December 27th. After all, it seems to have worked out remarkably well for Gingrich.
Newt and Donald met Monday morning for an hour and then held a press conference in which Newt endorsed the idea of Trump moderating a Republican debate, calling it no more ridiculous that Ronald Reagan starring in a movie with a chimp. (Psstt . . . Donald. That makes you the chimp.)
The thing is, though, other candidates either already had or pretty much immediately thereafter indicated that they would not participate in the debate. Ron Paul’s campaign – currently running 2nd in Iowa – had issued his formal refusal two days before, and Jon Huntsman announced that same Monday that he would not participate in this “publicity stunt.” Michele Bachmann telegraphed an obvious out by questioning on Tuesday whether Trump could be objective since “he said he’s already leaning towards a candidate.”
(Rick Perry so far has kept mum. Only Rick Santorum has agreed to also take part.)
Of course, the only person Newt is really interested in seeing on stage with himself is Mitt Romney. And Mitt Romney announced yesterday that he, too, is not interested in attending Trump’s debate. Which set Newt up perfectly:
“I think if you’re afraid to debate with Donald Trump, people are going to say, ‘so you want me to believe you can debate Barack Obama, but you’re afraid to show up with Donald Trump?” Gingrich told Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren. “And I think – it strikes me it’s kind of a very weak position. I don’t know why people would do that.”
It didn’t help Romney that Trump spoke to MSNBC later that same day and expressed surprise at Romney’s refusal to participate: “Frankly, I’m surprised because he really wants my endorsement. I mean, he wants it very badly.” (emphasis added)
Ouch. It sounds very much like Romney approached Trump hat-in-hand, but didn’t want anybody to know he was wooing the reality-show hairpiece. That looks pretty weak too.
And now Romney is very nicely boxed in. The debate isn’t scheduled to take place for another three weeks, so I’d be surprised if we don’t see Gingrich trying to make hay about Romney’s refusal to appear during those weeks. If Gingrich keeps this story alive – the story about Romney being “weak” – then you just know it’ll be like catnip to Donald Trump, and is the perfect little substance-free spectacle with which our political media prefers to distract itself.
Indeed, that already appears to be happening. In an interview scheduled to air tonight at 10:00 PM on Fox Business News, Sarah Palin is weighing in and urging Mitt Romney to change his mind and take part in the Trump debate. And right-wing house organs like Free Republic are suggesting that – wait for it – in order to make this less of a circus Palin, too, should moderate:
You know, if I was [sic] Trump, I’d ask Sarah Palin to join him to moderate the debate. The left in the media are talking about how Trump is just a publicity hog, and how he’s not a serious journalist who can moderate a debate, forget that, if Sarah Palin, who did go to college for journalism’s sake and knows a lot about every single issue was to join Trump, we’d have us a great debate.
If Trump wanted to up the ante, he'd ask Palin to help. Then, we'd get a real debate, what with her knowledge of this issues and her connection with the American people. And it would infuriate the Republican establishment because Romney just said he wouldn't do it. If he won't kiss the ring of Trump, he will sail far away from getting the nod of the American people if he decides to not kiss Sarah's ring. (emphasis added)
(I don’t make ‘em up folks, I just report what I see ‘em saying.)
So I imagine for the next few weeks we’ll be treated to Gingrich and Trump both sniping at Romney and calling him “weak” for failing to appear at the Iowa debate on the 27th. Sarah Palin – the sultana of self-promotion, the prima donna of PR – will continue to weigh in, and the media will speculate like wild about whether Mitt Romney will flip-flop on “the Trump debate decision.”
Either way he’s fairly screwed. If Mitt refuses to debate then (i) he’ll be deemed weak for ditching the debate, and (ii) he’ll be deemed to have insulted Donald Trump, who – for some completely unfathomable reason – the GOP base holds near and dear to their hearts. If Mitt agrees to debate then (i) he’ll be deemed weak for backing down, and (ii) he’ll forever have cemented in the public’s mind that there really is literally nothing about which Mitt Romney won’t “flip-flop.”
Nicely played, Newt.