UPDATE, 4:17pm: Mitt Romney has evidently taken my advice.
Donald Trump, through a spokesman, sent over a response to Romney's decision not to attend the debate.
"It would seem logical to me that if I was substantially behind in the polls, especially in Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida, I would be participating in the debate. But, I can also understand why Governor Romney decided not to do it."
Last Friday, Newsmax and Ion Television announced they would be hosting another GOP primary debate, to be moderated by reality-TV person and birther-blitherer Donald Trump. That was basically the moment where it was no longer possible to discern real political news from jokes on Twitter. And as it's scheduled for Dec. 27, this crazy debate could potentially serve as the "last word" before voters begin convening for the Jan. 3 Iowa Caucuses.
Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul were both very quick to announce that they would not be participating in this nonsense. (Huntsman's team responded, "LOL," in fact.) Meanwhile, new frontrunner Newt Gingrich has opted to join in the farce. (I'm guessing that the word "synergy" probably figured prominently in their deliberations.) Rick Santorum is a yes, Michele Bachmann is a maybe, Rick Perry is hopefully asking his staff how to spell "LOL," himself. The big question, however, is Mitt Romney: why hasn't he turned this down yet? He really should do that immediately.
Romney, of course, begins another week of his life looking at headlines that remind him that "GOP kingmakers" are unsatisfied with the choices they're left with in 2012, combined with a steady downpour of news that describes how Newt Gingrich is topping him in poll after poll. (Mitt was endorsed by Dan Quayle today, so he's got that going for him.) Party elites look on Mitt with discomfort for all the reasons you've already heard over and over again, but his primary flaw, in their eyes, is that he's seemingly inconstant in his convictions. Romney could stand make some gesture that demonstrates that he has a baseline amount of respect for his party and for the political process. Declining an invitation to be questioned by Donald Trump serves up a fantastic opportunity for Mitt to make such a gesture.
No one should be under the impression that a Trump-moderated debate will be anything other than a debasement of the political process. And if you happen to be laboring under the assumption that, at this point, political debates can just be turned over to anybody, you should read Jim Lehrer's new book, "Tension City," which examines the recent history of presidential debates in insightful detail.
Lehrer's book doesn't just offer an account of those frozen moments that have immortalized the debate performances of various would-be candidates. He goes on, at equal length, about the nerve-wracking work of the moderators themselves. From Lehrer's own perspective, the art of moderating requires painstaking intellectual preparation and the guts of a high-wire performer. As a moderator, Lehrer took great care in crafting questions. He fretted about it. He sought out advice. He was willing to admit his mistakes. He took real care in preventing his own performance from becoming the story. Most importantly, he makes it very clear that as a moderator, he was charged with caring for an important part of the political process, and that ordinary Americans were counting on him to do his best work. In short, he makes it clear that the ideal debate moderator is someone who works hard, applies rigorous self-scrutiny and is willing to subordinate the concerns of one's ego to the concerns of one's nation.
This is where I remind you that Donald Trump will be moderating this debate.
If Mitt Romney has any sort of reservoir of respect for the political process (and there's evidence to suggest he may not), he'll turn down Trump. But if that's not enough, he should consider the fact that the party elites who have been slow to show their support for his candidacy might look upon it more positively if he'd support their antipathy over this debate.
Karl Rove, for example, is not particularly happy with this recent turn of events, and as Alex Pareene notes, Rove took the extraordinary step of asking "the RNC to step in and fix this." As The Hill reported yesterday:
Veteran GOP strategist Karl Rove said Monday that the head of the Republican National Committee (RNC) should step in to "discourage" presidential candidates from attending the upcoming debate moderated by Donald Trump.
"Here's a guy who is saying, 'I'm going to endorse one of you,'" Rove said, criticizing the choice on "Fox & Friends."
"More importantly, what the heck are the Republican candidates doing showing up at a debate [whose moderator] says, 'I may run for president next year as an Independent'? I think the Republican National [Committee] chairman [Reince Priebus] should step in and say, 'We strongly discourage every candidate from appearing in a debate moderated by somebody who's gonna run for president,'" he said.
Charles Krauthammer is even more succinct, declaring the Trump debate to be "a joke." George Will, with whom Romney could certainly stand to score a point or two, said on the last edition of "This Week With Christiane Amanpour," "Surely it is time for these candidates to do something presidential, stand up and say, 'We're not going to be hijacked and participate in this.'"
I think that's a very good way of looking at the Trump debate -- it's an early test of leadership and of presidential mettle. Romney could send a powerful message by not participating, and win an easy round of plaudits from the elite GOP figures he's trying to win over.
The downside to bailing on Trump? Well, there is none. According to the latest NBC News/Marist Poll, the endorsement of Donald Trump -- the ostensible prize to be won at this debate -- is a net negative with voters:
A plurality -- 42% -- reports such an endorsement would make no difference to their vote while 37% say it would make them less likely to vote for such a candidate. Only 19% think a Trump endorsement would make them more likely to cast their ballot for a candidate, and 2% are unsure.
Mitt Romney knows full well the damage that can be done by associating your brand with Donald Trump -- as The New York Times reminded, when Romney previously met with the Donald, he went to great lengths to avoid being photographed with him. So ditching this debate is an easy call to make. He should make it right now.
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