The first Republican presidential debate takes place Thursday in Cleveland. Like many of you, I’ll be watching. It should be fun.
Most pundits expect bombastic front-runner Donald Trump to behave himself, but I have my doubts. When has Trump ever toned down his rhetoric for anyone? The businessman’s world is clearly divided between The Donald himself and the losers, whiners and idiots who constitute the nation’s political and journalistic elite. Hard for him to stop that rhetoric now.
And Trump intuitively understands the presidential campaign is, at this moment, mostly about entertainment. We’ll wade through the candidates’ position papers and campaign biographies and platforms eventually, but now? At the end of summer, six months before the Iowa caucuses?
We want “Shark Tank.”
In a normal election year, this festive phase of the campaign would dwindle quickly. Trump’s lead would make for high drama (or comedy), then fade as the bitter Iowa winter sets in. Trump would have no chance of winning the GOP nomination.
He’s still a long shot, but these are not normal times. Trump could easily survive a setback in Iowa — he’s got plenty of cash, and history is on his side. In the modern era, these candidates have won the Iowa GOP caucuses: Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, George W. Bush, Bob Dole twice and George H.W. Bush.
Only the Bushes became presidents, and H.W. had to serve as Ronald Reagan’s veep first.
More important, though, the nature of presidential politics may be changing. What if entertainment isn’t a sideshow this time, but the whole ball of wax?
Voters seem angry, frustrated, disappointed, bored. They’re mad at officeholders, at the media, at views they don’t agree with. The thought of a presidential race between a Clinton and a Bush may confirm their worst fears — that their choices are about to be hijacked by the 1990s, turning the election into a concert by a Pearl Jam tribute band.
Donald Trump isn’t Taylor Swift, of course, but he may be close enough. Voters think they see authenticity, even from a billionaire who makes his money selling his name. Sen. Bernie Sanders is getting a similar bump on the Democratic side because he seems far less calculating than Hillary Clinton.
So Thursday’s Republican debate should be compelling, not just an opening act. Trump may or may not be around at the end, but his approach — more Don Rickles, less Abraham Lincoln — may define the 2016 election.