As you're well aware, Donald Trump has elected to forego tomorrow's Fox News debate in Iowa, having failed to bully the network into removing Megyn Kelly as a moderator. Trump has been obsessed with Kelly ever since she asked him a tough, pointed question at the very first debate back in August. After days of threats and innuendo, the billionaire celebrity had inched far enough out onto the boycott limb that he evidently decided he had no choice but to follow through. This has generated a firestorm of media attention -- Trump's specialty -- and may well impact the event's ratings. But is this ultimately a misstep? I discussed that very question with Megyn Kelly on her program last night and unapologetically threw a few jabs at the GOP frontrunner:
Of course Donald Trump should pull on his big boy trousers and show up and answer your questions. You're a journalist, he's running for the presidency. These dramatic histrionics are just exhausting. It's completely silly. Although, I would say it's very much like a Democrat to refuse to debate on Fox News.
The other panelist, former presidential speechwriter Marc Thiessen, expands on his argument in his latest Washington Post column. Though Trump has run a very savvy campaign thus far, he argues, this call is a mistake:
Donald Trump’s announcement that he will boycott Thursday’s Fox News debate is a major strategic blunder — the first of his otherwise brilliant presidential campaign. If he follows through on his threat, he could regret it. First, skipping the debate makes Trump look weak. Trump’s campaign is centered on his image as the toughest candidate out there, Republican or Democrat — the man who can face down China, Iran and the Islamic State. He takes pride in throwing hecklers out of his campaign events. In October, a few months after Black Lives Matter protesters took the microphone from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at a campaign rally, Trump mocked Sanders mercilessly and said it “showed such weakness.” He even put up a Web ad that asked how Sanders could fight the Islamic State if he could not handle Black Lives Matter protesters. Well, how can Trump fight the Islamic State if he can’t handle a few tough questions from Megyn Kelly? If Trump does not show up, he won’t look tough — he’ll look like a big baby. He’ll look as though he is running from a fight. And running from a fight is not a New York value.
His second point and third points are that Trump would be ceding valuable, high-profile airtime to rivals like Ted Cruz -- who's eager to make a move in Iowa -- and that his no-show could seem petty and insulting to Iowans, a great many of whom are still finalizing their preferences ahead of Monday's election. Cruz appears to have a momentum problem in the Hawkeye State (here's another data point on that trajectory), so he's undoubtedly hoping to exploit Thiessen's points. Here he is warning Trump that skipping the debate would be disrespectful to Iowa voters:
Here's what's somewhat mystifying about Trump's calculation: He's demonstrated that he's incapable of damaging himself in debate settings, a format in which he's noticeably improved over time. If the polling is correct and Trump's sitting pretty for an Iowa win, why not show up, do your thing on stage, and deny Cruz any significant opening to pounce? If Cruz is in need of a late game-changer, Trump may have just handed him one. Very risky. On the other hand, Trump may have decided that he's so far ahead in New Hampshire, South Carolina and a number of the SEC primary states, he's got sufficient margin for error that gambling a little bit to stick it to Fox News and his personal bete noir is worth it. If you can garner major buzz in an ego-driven power play -- while hiding behind pro-veteran charity work and, without it imperiling your chances at the nomination -- go for it. I'll leave you with a very special word from...Donald Trump in 2011:
"We're not seeing a lot of courage here."
By the way, an idea springs to mind:
If Fox *really* wanted to troll America's Top Troll, they'd cut a big check to wounded warriors charity & leave vacant podium center stage.— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) January 27, 2016
I'm quite certain they'll eschew this tongue-in-cheek suggestion and stick to journalism -- rightly so.