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    Opinion | In Iowa, Trump’s politics of untruthfulness take in DeSantis and Haley

    The Iowa Republicans who caucus on a frigid Monday night will be choosing among a list of candidates whose front-runner is former president Donald Trump. It is a field newly vacated by the last contender who had built a campaign around truth-telling about Mr. Trump’s unfitness for office and the dangers of another Trump term. Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie dropped out of the race Wednesday, acknowledging the reality that he had no chance to win. He joins Mr. Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence, among those who tried to campaign on a warning to voters about the 45th president — and failed.

    In the run-up to its first nominating contest of 2024, the Republican Party remains in the grip of Mr. Trump and his fact-free politics of resentment. The accumulating criminal and civil cases against the former president seem to have created an even stronger bond between him and “the base.” He has successfully recast his legal troubles as a bad-faith campaign waged by the same liberal elites who, he claims, have it in for all ordinary Americans.

    Mr. Trump’s top remaining rivals, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, continue to argue that Mr. Trump’s legal woes could cripple his ability to beat President Biden in the fall. But if polls showing Mr. Trump headed for an Iowa landslide can be believed, a message rooted in a sense of partisan pragmatism is so far falling on deaf ears.

    Mr. DeSantis and Ms. Haley, battling for second place, have been spending time and energy attacking each other, which also benefits the former president. During a bitter debate in Des Moines on Wednesday night, Mr. DeSantis ripped into Ms. Haley over her modest proposals to ensure the solvency of Social Security. She has proposed raising the retirement age for younger people, indexing Social Security benefits to life expectancy, limiting the growth of benefits for higher-income beneficiaries and using an arguably more accurate inflation-adjustment measure, known as the chained CPI.

    To this realistic plan for addressing one of the key sources of a federal debt that just eclipsed $34 trillion, Mr. DeSantis responded demagogically. He criticized Ms. Haley for referring to Social Security — correctly — as an “entitlement.” “It’s not a welfare program,” he said. Mr. DeSantis promises he won’t “mess with Social Security” and would “never raise the retirement age in the face of a declining life expectancy.” Never mind that Mr. DeSantis, as a member of the House, supported budget blueprints of then-Rep. Paul D. Ryan (Wis.), Republicans’ 2012 vice-presidential nominee, which would have made far more dramatic adjustments to Social Security. Never mind that, campaigning for the House, he referred to Mr. Ryan’s plans as “reforming entitlements.”

    The DeSantis-Haley quarrel on this issue epitomizes yet another way in which Mr. Trump has warped the party: policy. Whether by questioning aid to Ukraine and the U.S. commitment to NATO, or enforcing a new orthodoxy against “touching” Social Security or Medicare, Mr. Trump has bent GOP conservatism to the breaking point. Earlier in the campaign, Mr. Trump attacked Mr. DeSantis for his past stance on Social Security, and so the Florida governor changed his tune. Undeniably, Mr. Trump’s position is both politically popular and similar to that of the Democrats. And yet by rendering straight talk about the debt even more difficult than it already was, for both parties, he has made the country that much less capable of addressing its problems.

    During a Fox News town hall last month, Mr. Trump said he could shore up Social Security with revenue from expanded oil leasing. (The nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget calculates that “it would be impossible to fix Social Security even if all federal land were opened to drilling operations.”) Bringing up the rear in the GOP field, Vivek Ramaswamy pledged to save Social Security with the savings from laying off most government workers and shuttering federal agencies. And for all her common sense on Social Security, Ms. Haley’s strange hesitation to acknowledge slavery as the cause of the Civil War was itself another symptom of how far the GOP has strayed.

    The Iowa caucuses represent the first actual test of Mr. Trump’s appeal in 2024 — and of the chances that anyone can deny him a third straight Republican nomination. Following the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, it seemed not just possible but probable that some combination of Mr. Trump’s own flaws and the GOP’s interest in fielding a maximally electable nominee in 2024 would propel a new candidate. Now, however, both time and the available alternatives are running out.

    The Post’s View | About the Editorial Board

    Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through discussion among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

    Members of the Editorial Board: Opinion Editor David Shipley, Deputy Opinion Editor Charles Lane and Deputy Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg, as well as writers Mary Duenwald, Christine Emba, Shadi Hamid, David E. Hoffman, James Hohmann, Heather Long, Mili Mitra, Eduardo Porter, Keith B. Richburg and Molly Roberts.

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