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Thunderdome: A Primary Roiled by Foreign Events
Will what happened in Israel change the outcome?
First, before we get into the meat of today’s edition, I just wanted to plug this appearance on Will Cain’s podcast, where I debated libertarian Dave Smith on Israel and other foreign policy issues. My thanks to Will for reaching out with the invitation. As you probably know based on my writing, I could’ve taken this debate in a more hostile direction (and so for that matter could Dave!), but I think it’s important to have some space for civil disagreement and not just descend into the kind of name-calling that properly exists on X. Better to keep the focus on the central matter than, say, relitigating the work of one Max Blumenthal. Please watch, listen, and give feedback!
Welcome to Thunderdome, where this week the 2024 election had its first real sea change in priority and policy focus thanks to the horrific, detestable, and utterly evil attacks on Israel by Hamas. The general rule in politics is that foreign policy doesn't matter for voters, and that's been true in... actually, wait a minute... not even the majority of presidential elections in the past half century! In 1980, 1984, 1988, 2004, 2008, and 2016, foreign policy played an outsized role in the candidate selection of Republicans and Democrats, and you could even argue that Joe Biden's false promise of foreign policy normalcy was decisive in 2020. So forget the assumptions: national security broadly defined, or lack thereof in terms of terrorist activity or border chaos, plays a huge role in presidential elections, second only to the economy. Will that happen again in 2024? We discuss all that and more on this week's edition of the Thunderdome podcast -- listen and subscribe today!
Haley and DeSantis should ditch the RNC
Ronna Romney McDaniel has presided over a Republican National Committee that is regularly denounced by consultants and campaign managers as "utterly useless", and that's the G-rated version of what they have to say. If you want a good measure of that, consider this report from National Review:
The Republican National Committee does not plan to make any direct cash transfers to Virginia Republicans this fall ahead of the party’s state legislative elections in November, National Review has confirmed.
Virginia Republican Party chairman Rich Anderson met in person with senior RNC staffers in D.C. on Monday to request that the party pour money into the state to help Governor Glenn Youngkin maintain the party’s narrow grip on the house of delegates and flip the state senate, a source familiar with the matter told NR. But senior staffers at the RNC denied Anderson’s request.
The RNC staffers reminded Anderson of a separate meeting earlier this summer, when Dave Rexrode — who heads Youngkin’s political-action committee, Spirit of Virginia — reportedly told senior RNC officials that, at that point, the national party did not need to spend money in Virginia.
That summer meeting — on top of the national party’s need to prioritize fundraising for federal races and an expensive presidential election cycle in 2024 — affected how the RNC budgeted for the rest of the year, the source said.
But, privately, some Virginia-based GOP operatives worry about the optics of RNC’s decision not to spend heavily in Virginia, especially after President Joe Biden ordered the Democratic National Committee back in September to pour more than $1 million into the state on behalf of Democratic state legislative candidates.
As the fall elections draw near, Virginia GOP chairman Anderson is playing down concerns that the RNC’s decision not to commit resources to Virginia will doom Republicans’ chances.
“I believe we have the resources required to win,” Anderson told NR in an interview, citing the stunning $15.5 million that Spirit of Virginia has raked in since March. The PAC still has roughly $7 million cash on hand. The Republican State Leadership Committee has also spent roughly $5.5 million this cycle, RSLC spokesman Mason Di Palma confirmed to NR.
Well obviously RNC resources are limited and precious, and they should be focused on winning federal elections. Which is why they pay for Ronna Romney McDaniel's hair, makeup, and rent.
Ronna McDaniel is coming under even more fire for alleged frivolous spending as insiders claim she's using donor money as a 'personal piggybank' – amid revelations the Republican National Conference spent nearly half-a-million dollars on her luxury Washington, D.C. apartment and another $75,000 on beauty and spa services.
The RNC chairwoman, who is facing a tough reelection racee for an unprecedented fourth term on Friday, has faced criticism from her opponents for wasteful spending of donor funds meant for getting more Republicans elected.
A new review of Federal Election Committee filings show that funds went toward rent in one of the most luxury apartment buildings in Washington, D.C., which includes an indoor pool, hot tub, sauna, steam room, Equinox gym, indoor basketball court and bowling alley, among other amenities.
Well, look, you get what you pay for -- and clearly Ronna Romney McDaniel is a super effective spokesperson for the Republican cause, someone who can be counted on to sound the right note in a time of crisis, and never handing Democrats a convenient talking point. Oh, wait:
The White House on Monday slammed Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel after she called the terrorist attacks in Israel over the weekend a “great opportunity” for Republican candidates to contrast their agenda with the Biden administration.
“At least nine Americans have lost their lives in these brutal terrorist attacks against the State of Israel. Hundreds of additional innocent people are dead. While apparently some individuals like Ronna McDaniel consider this loss of life and pain a ‘great opportunity,’ most Americans see it as a horrific tragedy,” deputy press secretary Andrew Bates said in a statement.
So here's the situation we face now: The RNC has kept an iron claw on the debate process, preventing candidates from facing off in any other venue than their predetermined choices. They've done so while allowing the leading candidate, former president Donald Trump, to skate by, avoiding any requirement to debate or participate. The effect has been embarrassing to say the least -- too many candidates, too little time, and a Univision backed questioner in the second debate who was heinous, inaccurate, and essentially functioned as a Democratic plant.
The RNC has done a terrible job of managing this cycle, just like they did in 2016 -- except worse, because nothing this year has been very unpredictable. But they threaten anyone who wants to break out of their management cabal, like some form of politically impotent OPEC run by model U.N. nerds, with the most disastrous of consequences. Vivek Ramaswamy and Chris Christie just experienced this when they were supposed to be on the same Fox set for 30 minutes!
So what should be done? It's simple: There are realistically only two candidates in the field with the resources, support, and capacity to take on the once upon a time incumbent -- and that's Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley. As it happens, both also have a great deal to say about foreign policy and the differences in approach they would offer as president. They should break this cartel at its knees. Just announce you're having a debate, or two, perhaps in Iowa and South Carolina, regardless of what the RNC says.
You'll be condemned, sure… but the RNC doesn't want you to be the candidates anyway. So why not call their bluff? When Donald Trump skipped the Iowa debate to host his own event, there was a bunch of noise about it, but nothing that prevented him from becoming the nominee. The same would be true here, and based on the caliber of discussion, you can easily see one of the two candidates seizing momentum after a real solidly grounded back and forth.
Ditch the RNC. They won't be there when you need them, and there's nothing they can offer that's more valuable than Ronna Romney McDaniel's apartment.
Vivek hardest hit by Israel focus
It's no mystery that the Christian-heavy GOP primary electorate is unlikely to look kindly on some of the comments Vivek Ramaswamy has made about Israel, but he definitely seemed to double down in an interview this week. The Free Beacon quotes him at length -- which once again inspired his outrage on X:
Vivek Ramaswamy criticized Republicans for their "selective moral outrage" at the mass terrorist attacks in Israel, and argued that politicians calling for a stronger military response against Hamas and Iran are driven by donor money.
The Republican presidential candidate questioned why his GOP opponents are not expressing similar outrage about the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and accused them of "ignoring the interests of the U.S. right here at home." Specifically, Ramaswamy, in an interview with Tucker Carlson, equated the influx of fentanyl over the southern border—a "genocide," in Carlson's estimation—with Hamas's attack against Israel.
"The selective nature of ignoring certain other conflicts—even more importantly, ignoring the interests of the U.S. right here at home—is what irritates the heck out of me," Ramaswamy told Carlson.
"It is shameful. And I think that there are, frankly, financial and corrupting influences that lead them exactly to speak the way they do, that's just the hard truth," he added.
Ramaswamy, who is polling at 5.9 percent in the RealClearPolitics average, added that there is "no level of moral outrage" about this "incursion right here at home" and argued that many other conflicts around the world are covered up by the U.S. press and deep-pocketed lobbyists. "Azerbaijan has a lobby, a powerful lobby in Washington D.C."
"You only hear about [foreign conflicts] in certain selective cases that the media and the existing establishment and both parties deem fit for the American public," he said.
Pence pointed fingers at "voices of appeasement like Donald Trump, Vivek Ramaswamy and Ron DeSantis that I believe have run contrary to the tradition in our party that America is the leader of the free world."
The growing schism in the Republican Party over America's role policing the world — evident in GOP fight over continued support for Ukraine in its year and a half long war against Russian aggression — may be spreading to Israel, where Republicans have long showcased their unyielding support for Jerusalem.
It's no surprise that Pence was the first to take aim at other GOP White House hopefuls and has repeatedly criticized some of his rivals, including his former running mate, over their lack of support for Kyiv.
"This is also what happens when you have leaders in the Republican Party signaling retreat on the world stage," Pence argued. Evoking the late President Ronald Reagan, as he often does, Pence emphasized that "it’s time to get back to peace through strength."
Another part of the rift in the Republican presidential primary between the GOP's growing isolationist wing and more traditional conservatives pushing for a muscular U.S. role overseas, could be seen in a speech Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina delivered Tuesday afternoon at a think tank in Washington D.C., and in an ensuing interview on the Fox News Channel.
While blasting Biden for having "blood on his hands," and claiming that the president's weakness "invited the attack" by Hamas, which was supported by Iran, Scott targeted DeSantis and Ramaswamy.
"Vivek Ramaswamy has said that the definition of success is reducing America’s support for Israel," Scott argued. He accused the multi-millionaire biotech entrepreneur and first-time candidate of proposing "that we surrender Taiwan to the Chinese Communist Party as long as we’ve relocated some factories."
Scott also blasted the Florida governor, noting that "DeSantis once dismissed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as just some ‘territorial dispute.’"
"The last thing we need is a Joe Biden wing of the Republican Party on foreign policy," he argued.
No love from Trump for Israel
The likeliest nominee of the GOP was sounding the most skeptical note of the day with his personally vindictive comments about Bibi Netanyahu and his praise of Hezbollah for their brilliant strategy. Don't look now:
It was hardly out of character for Donald Trump. But in the pantheon of unforced errors, criticizing Benjamin Netanyahu and praising Hezbollah days after the worst terror attack in the nation’s 75-year history would seem to rank right up there.
By Thursday morning, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence had already lit into Trump for calling Hezbollah “very smart” and saying the Israeli prime minister “let us down.” The White House called Trump’s comments “dangerous and unhinged.”
If Trump’s many past controversial statements are any indication, he may ultimately pay little price for it. Trump has criticized Netanyahu before. But never days after such a flagrant attack on Israel. And in a primary where lower-polling rivals have been mostly cautious in their criticisms of the frontrunner, Trump’s remarks on Wednesday offered, at a minimum, an opening.
“This is no time for any former president or any other American leader to be sending any message other than America stands with Israel,” Pence said on a New Hampshire radio station on Thursday morning.
“Hezbollah aren’t smart, they’re evil,” Pence said on News Radio 610 ahead of a two-day campaign swing in New Hampshire. “But the former president also said when Russia invaded Ukraine in a similar, unprovoked, unconscionable invasion a year-and-a-half ago, he said Vladimir Putin was a genius.”
Trump’s remarks were in line with his past criticisms of Netanyahu. His praise for Hezbollah recalled his one-time description of Kim Jong Un as a “very talented man” and ISIS leaders as “very smart.”
Steven Cheung, a spokesperson for the Trump campaign, said Thursday that Trump “was clearly pointing out how incompetent Biden and his administration were by telegraphing to the terrorists an area that is susceptible to an attack.”
"See the important thing when thousands of people are murdered is to remember that Bibi tried to take credit for a thing I ALONE DID, and also called Joe Biden to congratulate him on winning the election, which was STOLEN from me! And it's his fault they were murdered because the terrorists are brilliant and he's a stupidhead." I’m sure that’s what he meant to say.
One more thing
The spoiler threat of RFK Jr. is absolutely real, and it increases the likelihood that, absent an electoral college majority, the most chaotic body in government -- the U.S. House -- could decide the next presidential election. Here's Kevin Kosar on that nightmare scenario.
Eventually, we have to hope this period ends and we get back to presidential candidates who can win the popular vote and avoid the nailbiters of the past few elections. But at this point, that's all a dream -- and the likelihood of a near deadlocked race with the major party candidates as we see them now, plus Cornel West, RFK, No Labels, and a Libertarian candidate, and several other stragglers... well, let's just say the speaker race could seem like a walk in the park.