Opinion

‘How Is Joe Biden Even Still in This Race?’: Three Writers Preview the Second G.O.P. Debate

Frank Bruni, a contributing Opinion writer, hosted a written online conversation with Josh Barro, who writes the newsletter Very Serious, and Sarah Isgur, a senior editor at The Dispatch, to discuss their expectations for the second Republican debate on Wednesday night. They also dig into and try to sort out a barrage of politics around President Biden’s sagging approval numbers, an impeachment inquiry, a potential government shutdown and shocking political rhetoric from former President Trump.

Frank Bruni: For starters, Josh and Sarah, Donald Trump is scaring the hell out of me. It’s not just his mooning over a Glock. It’s his musing that in what he clearly sees as better days, Gen. Mark Milley could have been executed for treason. Is this a whole new altitude of unhinged — and a louder, shriller warning of what a second term of Trump would be like (including the suspension of the Constitution)?

Josh Barro: I don’t think people find Trump’s provocations very interesting these days. I personally struggle to find them interesting, even though they are important. I’m not sure this constitutes an escalation relative to the end of Trump’s service — the last thing he did as president was try to steal the election. So I’m not sure this reads as new — Trump is and has been unhinged, and that’s priced in.

Bruni: Sarah, what do you make of how little has been made of it? Is Trump indemnified against his own indecency, or can we dream that he may finally estrange a consequential percentage of voters?

Sarah Isgur: Here’s what’s wild. In one poll, the G.O.P. is now more or less tied with Democrats for “which party cares about people like me,” closing in on Democrats’ 13-point advantage in 2016 … and in another poll, the G.O.P. is leading Democrats by over 20 points on “dealing with the economy.” So how is Joe Biden even still in this race? And the answer, as you allude to, is Trump.

Barro: Trump’s behavior has already estranged a consequential percentage of voters. If Republicans found a candidate who was both normal and law-abiding and a popularist, they’d win big, instead of trying to patch together a narrow Electoral College victory, like Trump managed in 2016 and nearly did again in 2020.

Bruni: Sarah, you’re suggesting that Trump is a huge general election gift to Biden. To pivot to tonight’s debate, is there any chance Biden doesn’t get that gift — that he winds up facing Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis or someone else?

Isgur: Possible? Sure. Every year for Christmas, I thought it was possible there was a puppy in one of the boxes under the tree. There never was. I still think Ron DeSantis is probably the only viable alternative to Trump. But he’s looking far less viable than he was in June. And the more voters and donors flirt with Tim Scott or Nikki Haley, it becomes a race for No. 2 (see this debate) — and the better it is for Trump. That helps Trump in two ways: First, it burns time on the clock and he’s the front-runner. Second, the strongest argument for these other candidates was that Trump couldn’t beat Biden. But that’s becoming a harder and harder case to make — more because of Biden than Trump. And as that slides off the table, Republican primary voters don’t see much need to shop for an alternative.

Barro: These other G.O.P. candidates wouldn’t have Trump’s legal baggage and off-putting lawlessness, but most of them have been running to Trump’s right on abortion and entitlements. And if Trump isn’t the nominee, he’ll quite possibly be acting to undermine whoever is the G.O.P. nominee. So it’s possible that Republicans are actually more likely to win the election if they nominate him than if they don’t.

Isgur: You talk to these campaigns, and they will readily admit that if Trump wins Iowa, this thing is over. And right now he’s consistently up more than 30 points in Iowa. Most of the movement in the polls is between the other candidates. That ain’t gonna work.

Barro: I agree with Sarah that the primary is approaching being over. DeSantis has sunk in the polls and he’s not making a clear argument about why Trump shouldn’t be nominated.

Bruni: Do any of tonight’s debaters increase their criticism of him? Sharpen their attacks? Go beyond Haley’s “Gee, you spent a lot of money” and Mike Pence’s “You were not nice to me on Jan. 6”? And if you could script those attacks, what would they be? Give the candidates a push and some advice.

Barro: DeSantis has been making some comments lately about how Trump kept getting beat in negotiations by Democrats when he was in office. He’s also been criticizing Trump for throwing pro-lifers under the bus. The unsaid thing here that could tie together these issues and Trump’s legal issues is that he is selfish — that this project is about benefiting him, not about benefiting Republican voters. It’s about doing what’s good for him.

That said, this is a very tough pitch for a party full of people who love Trump and who think he constantly faces unfair attacks. But it’s true, and you can say it without ever actually attacking Trump from the left.

Isgur: Here’s the problem for most of them: It’s not their last rodeo. Sure, they’d like to win this time around. And for some there’s a thought of the vice presidency or a cabinet pick. But more than that, they want to be viable in 2028 or beyond. Trump has already been an electoral loser for the G.O.P. in 2018, 2020 and 2022, and it hasn’t mattered. They aren’t going to bet their futures on Trump’s power over G.O.P. primary voters diminishing if he loses in 2024, and if he wins, he’ll be limited to one term, so all the more reason to tread lightly with Trump’s core voters. Chris Christie is a great example of the alternative strategy because it is probably his last race — and so he’s going straight at Trump. But it hasn’t fundamentally altered the dynamics of the race.

Barro: I think DeSantis’s star certainly looks dimmer than it did when he got into the race.

Isgur: DeSantis is worse off. But this was always going to happen. Better to happen in 2024 than 2028. But Josh is right. Political operatives will often pitch their candidate on there being “no real downside” to running because you grow your national donor lists and expand your name recognition with voters outside your state. But a lot of these guys are learning what Scott Walker, Jeb Bush and Tim Pawlenty have learned: There is a downside to running when expectations are high — you don’t meet them.

Bruni: Give me a rough estimate — how much time have Haley and her advisers spent forging and honing put-downs of Vivek Ramaswamy? And would you like to suggest any for their arsenal? Josh, I’m betting you do, as you have written acidly about your college days with Ramaswamy.

Barro: So I said in a column (“Section Guy Runs for President”) that I didn’t know Ramaswamy in college, but I have subsequently learned that, when I was a senior, I participated in a debate about Social Security privatization that he moderated. That I was able to forget him, I think, is a reflection of how common the overbearing type was at Harvard.

Bruni: Ramaswamy as a carbon copy of countless others? Now you’ve really put me off my avocado toast, Josh. Is he in this race deep into the primaries, or is he the Herman Cain of this cycle (he asked wishfully)?

Barro: I think the Ramaswamy bubble has already popped.

Bruni: Popped? You make him sound like a pimple.

Isgur: Your words, Frank.

Barro: He makes himself sound like a pimple. He’s down to 5.1 percent in the RealClearPolitics polling average, below where he was just before the August debate. One poll showed his unfavorables going up more than his favorables after the debate — he is very annoying, and that was obvious to a lot of people, whether or not they share my politics.

Isgur: Agree. He’s not Trump. Trump can weather the “take me seriously, not literally” nonsense. Ramaswamy doesn’t have it.

Bruni: Let’s talk about some broader dynamics. We’re on the precipice of a federal shutdown. If it comes, will that hurt Republicans and boost Biden, or will it seem to voters like so much usual insider garbage that it’s essentially white noise, to mix my metaphors wildly?

Barro: I’m not convinced that government shutdowns have durable political effects.

Isgur: It seems to keep happening every couple years, and the sky doesn’t fall. It is important, though, when it comes to what the G.O.P. is and what it will be moving forward. Kevin McCarthy battling for his job may not be anything new. But Chip Roy is the fiscal heart and soul of this wing of the party, and even he is saying they are going to pay a political penalty.

Barro: I find it interesting that Kevin McCarthy seems extremely motivated to avoid one, or at least contain its duration. He thinks the politics are important.

Isgur: I’d argue the reason it’s important is because it shows you what happens when voters elect people based on small donor popularity and social media memes. Nobody is rewarded for accomplishments, which require compromise — legislative or otherwise. These guys do better politically when they are in the minority. They actually win by losing — at least when their colleagues lose, that is. That’s not a sustainable model for a political party: Elect us and we’ll complain about the other guys the best!

Bruni: What about the impeachment inquiry? The first hearing is on Thursday. Is it and should it be an enormous concern for Biden?

Isgur: I’m confused why everyone else is shrugging this thing off. I keep hearing that this doesn’t give the G.O.P. any additional subpoena powers. Yes, it does. We just did this when House Democrats tried to subpoena Trump’s financial records. The Supreme Court was very clear that the House has broad legislative subpoena power when what they are seeking is related to potential legislation, but that it is subject to a balancing test between the two branches. But even the dissenters in that case said that Congress could have sought those records pursuant to their impeachment subpoena power. So, yes, the tool — a congressional subpoena — is the same. But the impeachment inquiry broadens their reach here. So they’ve opened the inquiry, they can get his financial records. Now it matters what they find.

Barro: I agree with Sarah that the risk to Biden here depends on the underlying facts.

Isgur: And I’m not sure why Democrats are so confident there won’t be anything there. The president has gotten so many of the facts wrong around Hunter Biden’s business dealings, I have no idea what his financial records will show. I am no closer to knowing whether Joe Biden was involved or not. But I’m not betting against it, either.

Barro: I think the Hunter saga is extremely sad, and as I’ve written, it looks to me like the president is one of Hunter’s victims rather than a co-conspirator. I also think while there are aspects of this that are not relatable (it’s not relatable to have your son trading on your famous name to do a lot of shady business), there are other aspects that are very relatable — it is relatable to have a no-good family member with substance abuse and psychological issues who causes you a lot of trouble.

Obviously, if they find some big financial scheme to transfer money to Joe Biden, the politics of this will be very different. But I don’t think they’re going to find it.

Bruni: But let’s look beyond Hunter, beyond any shutdown, beyond impeachment. Sarah, Josh, if you were broadly to advise Joe Biden about how to win what is surely going to be a very, very, very close race, what would be your top three recommendations?

Barro: The president’s No. 1 political liability is inflation, and food and fuel prices are the most salient aspect of inflation. He should be doing everything he can to bring price levels down. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have a ton of direct control over this — if presidents did, they wouldn’t get tripped up by this issue. But he should be approving more domestic energy production and transmission, and he should be bragging more about doing so.

U.S. oil production is nearing record levels, but Biden is reluctant to talk about that because it makes climate activists mad. If he gets attacked from the left for making gasoline too cheap and plentiful, great.

Isgur: Make it a referendum on Trump. It’s what Hillary Clinton failed to do in 2016. When it’s about Trump, voters get squeamish. When it’s about Biden, they think of all of his flaws instead.

Bruni: Squeamish doesn’t begin to capture how Trump makes this voter feel. Additional recommendations?

Barro: Biden generally needs to be willing to pick more fights with the left. Trump has shown how this kind of politics works — by picking a fight with pro-life activists, he’s moderating his own image and increasing his odds of winning the general election. There’s a new poll out this week that says that voters see the Democratic Party as more extreme than the Republican Party by a margin of nine points. Biden needs to address that gap by finding his own opportunities to break with the extremes of his party — energy and fossil fuels provide one big opportunity, as I discussed earlier, but he can also break with his party in other areas where its agenda has unpopular elements, like crime and immigration.

Isgur: The Republican National Committee handed Biden’s team a gift when they pulled out of the bipartisan debate commission. Biden doesn’t have to debate now. And he shouldn’t. The Trump team should want a zillion debates with Biden. I have no idea why they gave him this out.

Bruni: I hear you, Sarah, on how Biden might bear up for two hours under bright lights, but let’s be realistic: Debates don’t exactly flatter Trump, who comes across as one part feral, two parts deranged. But let’s address the Kamala Harris factor. Josh, you’ve recommended replacing Harris, though it won’t happen. Maybe that’s your third? But you have to tell me whom you’d replace her with.

Barro: Harris isn’t just a 2024 problem but also a 2028 problem. She is materially less popular than Biden is, and because of Biden’s age, he even more than most presidents needs a vice president who Americans feel comfortable seeing take the presidency, and the polls show that’s not her. I’ve written about why he should put Gretchen Whitmer on the ticket instead. What Biden needs to hold 270 electoral votes is to keep the Upper Midwest swing states where his poll numbers are actually holding up pretty well — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The popular governor of Michigan can do a lot more for him there than Harris can.

Isgur: It is a big problem that voters don’t think Biden will make it through another term, so that the V.P. question isn’t will she make a good vice president but will she make a good president. Democrats are quick to point out that V.P. attacks haven’t worked in the past. True! But nobody was really thinking about Dan Quayle sitting behind the Resolute Desk, either. But I don’t think they can replace Harris. The cost would be too high with the base. I also don’t think Harris can get better. So my advice here is to hide her. Don’t remind voters that they don’t like her. Quit setting her up for failure and word salads.

Bruni: I want to end with a lightning round and maybe find some fugitive levity — God knows we need it. In honor of Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, I wonder: How many gold bars does each of you have in your basement or closet? Mine are in my pantry, behind the cashews, and I haven’t counted them lately.

Barro: I understand Bob Menendez keeps tons of cash in his house because his family had to flee a Communist revolution. This is completely understandable. The only reason I don’t keep all that gold on hand is that I do not have a similar familial history.

Isgur: Mine are made of chocolate, and they are delicious. (Dark chocolate. Milk chocolate is for wusses, and white chocolate is a lie.)

Bruni: Are we measuring Kevin McCarthy’s remaining time as House speaker in hours, weeks or months, and what’s your best guess for when he subsequently appears in — and how he fares on — “Dancing With the Stars”?

Isgur: Why do people keep going on that show?! The money can’t possibly be that good. I’ll take the over on McCarthy, though. The Matt Gaetz caucus doesn’t have a viable replacement or McCarthy wouldn’t have won in the first place … or 15th place.

Barro: I also take the over on McCarthy — most of his caucus likes him, and unlike the John Boehner era, he hasn’t had to resort to moving spending bills that lack majority support in the conference. Gaetz and his ilk are a huge headache, but he won’t be going anywhere.

Bruni: Does the confirmed November debate between Ron DeSantis and Gavin Newsom — moderated by Sean Hannity! — represent reason to live or reason to emigrate?

Barro: Ugh. I find Newsom so grating and slimy. All you really need to know about him is he had an affair with his campaign manager’s wife. He’s also been putting his interests ahead of the party’s, with this cockamamie proposal for a constitutional amendment to restrict gun rights. It will never happen, will raise the salience of gun issues in a way that hurts Democratic candidates in a general election and will help Newsom build a grass roots email fund-raising list.

Isgur: Oh, I actually think this is pretty important. Newsom and DeSantis more than anyone else in their parties actually represent the policy zeitgeist of their teams right now. This is the debate we should be having in 2024. As governors, they’ve been mirror images of each other. The problem for a Burkean like me is that both of them want to use and expand state power to “win” for their team. There’s no party making the argument for limited government or fiscal restraint anymore. And there’s no concern about what happens when you empower government and the other side wins an election and uses that power the way they want to.

Bruni: You’ve no choice: You must dine, one-on-one, with either Matt Gaetz or Marjorie Taylor Greene. Whom do you choose, and how do you dull the pain?

Barro: Marjorie Taylor Greene, but we’d spend the whole time talking about Lauren Boebert.

Isgur: Damn. That was a good answer. Can I pick George Santos? At least he’s got great stories.

Bruni: Last question — we’ve been plenty gloomy. Name something or a few things that have happened over recent weeks that should give us hope about the country’s future.

Barro: The Ibram Kendi bubble popped! So, that was good.

More seriously, while inflation remains a major problem (and a totally valid voter complaint), the economy has continued to show resiliency on output and job growth. People still want to spend and invest, despite 7 percent mortgage rates. It points to underlying health in the economy and a reason to feel good about American business and living standards in the medium and long term.

Isgur: I had a baby this month — and in fact, September is one of the most popular birth month in the United States — so for all of us who are newly unburdened, we’re enjoying that second (third?) glass of wine, deli meat, sushi, unpasteurized cheese and guilt-free Coke Zero. And the only trade-off is that a little potato screams at me for about two hours each night!

But you look at these new studies showing that the overall birthrate in the United States is staying low as teen pregnancies drop and birth control becomes more available but that highly educated woman are having more kids than they did 40 years ago … clearly some people are feeling quite hopeful. Or randy. Or both!

Bruni: Sarah, that’s wonderful about your little potato — and your sushi!

Barro: Congratulations!

Bruni: Pop not only goes the weasel but also the Ramaswamy and the Kendi — and the Barro, ever popping off! Thank you both. Happy Republican debate! If that’s not the oxymoron of the century.

Frank Bruni is a professor of journalism and public policy at Duke University, the author of the book “The Beauty of Dusk” and a contributing Opinion writer. He writes a weekly email newsletter.

Josh Barro writes the newsletter Very Serious and is the host of the podcast “Serious Trouble.”

Sarah Isgur is a senior editor at The Dispatch and the host of the podcast “Advisory Opinions.”

Source photograph by ZargonDesign, via Getty Images.

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