A Bizarro, Boring Debate
The GOP contenders in Milwaukee mostly tried to pretend that a Constitution-shredding cult leader wasn’t crushing them all.
DID WEDNESDAY NIGHT’S Republican presidential primary debate change anything? Or will the twice-impeached, four-times indicted, mentally fraying Donald Trump continue his seemingly inexorable march to the Republican nomination?
With Trump absent—his counterprogrammed prerecorded chat with Tucker Carlson has, as of this writing, supposedly had 55 million views—what was most remarkable about the debate was the seeming normalcy of the discussion. Issues, actual issues, were debated: debt, inflation, abortion, the environment, crime, homelessness, drug policy, gun control, education. Some of it was extreme, as when Vivek Ramaswamy declared that the “climate change agenda is a hoax.” Or when Chris Christie called for a ten-year prison sentence for Hunter Biden’s minor gun possession violation. But with Donald Trump out of the picture, it was, for the most part, refreshingly . . . boring.
But it was also all an illusion. For despite the normal give and take of the evening, Trump—“the elephant not in the room,” as host Bret Baier called him—is running away with the nomination as these candidates blathered on. When asked whether they would support Trump if he is the GOP nominee, all of the candidates except Asa Hutchinson and Chris Christie raised their hands.
Christie, who did so much to boost Trump’s prospects in 2016, has been doing penance for his pains. But perhaps expectations were too high that he would come out slashing and burning the frontrunner. Instead, he expended his verbal energy attacking Ramaswamy as an amateur and Ron DeSantis for downplaying Mike Pence’s courage and rectitude on January 6th.
Asa Hutchinson’s low-key pitch was as reassuring as it was unexciting. He went the furthest among the candidates in challenging Trump, particularly castigating him for undermining the American system of justice. Trump, he said, was “morally disqualified“ from being president again. Hutchinson even endorsed the law review article by William Baude and Michael Stokes Paulsen arguing that Trump is ineligible from holding the presidency again under section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Mike Pence opened by fawning in a way that was reminiscent of how he spent 2017 through 2020: “I’m incredibly proud of the record of the Trump administration.” But he undeniably has a presidential bearing. And he admirably and forthrightly explained that in the run-up to January 6th, Trump asked him to put his personal political future over and above the Constitution and that was wrong. He spoke out passionately in defense of Ukraine and America as the leader of the free world. Despite the Trump stain on his past, Pence’s performance was probably the most impressive of anyone on the stage.
Unfortunately, of course, neither Christie nor Hutchinson nor Pence has a snowball’s chance in Mar-a-Lago
hell given the MAGA dominance of today’s GOP. They are each, to varying degrees, performing an important public service, speaking the truth about Trump to GOP voters, most of whom have plugged their ears. Whatever happens in the Republican primaries, their voices will have softened up support for Trump in the November general election.
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Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, and Doug Burgum, one has to believe, wanted nothing more from the evening exchange than a chance to audition for the slot of vice president. Why anyone would want that demeaning position, forced to be an understudy to a cult leader, is one of the mysteries of this awful moment. But with their steadfast refusal to criticize the frontrunner except in the most anodyne terms, these three have almost no chance to break out from the pack. They seem to recognize that to speak the truth about Trump is both electoral suicide and likely to disqualify them in the veepstakes.
Haley did not make much of a mark, although she did clash effectively with Ramaswamy over Ukraine and foreign policy generally. It is difficult to believe that anything she said on the stage will make any difference in her low standing (she’s now under 4 percent in the RealClearPolitics polling average). Her assertion that Trump should not be nominated because he is “the most disliked politician in America” did not enhance her vice-presidential prospects, but presumably neither did it doom them.
Tim Scott’s attractive persona was on display, although the format didn’t give him many opportunities to be as warmly expansive as he is at his best. Also on display, though, was his lack of courage, his inability to state what is before his (and everyone’s) eyes: that Trump is unfit to serve as president. Instead, Scott repeated Trump talking points about the “weaponization of the Department of Justice” and against FBI director Christopher Wray. (He also oddly said that, if elected president, he would fire Attorney General Merrick Garland. That’s . . . not how things work.) The debate left me rating Scott as Trump’s most likely veep selection.
The well-spoken and slick Ramaswamy is particularly repulsive. In his campaign, and on the debate stage, he has been in effect siding with Russia against Ukraine. He has also advocated cutting Israel loose as part of “a broader disengagement from the Middle East,” and flirted with 9/11 and COVID trutherism. His declaration during the debate, meant to ingratiate himself with the audience, that “Trump is the best president of the twenty-first century” is itself disqualifying. Ramaswamy repeated his call for pardoning Trump on day one of his presidency and demanded that others pledge to do so as well.
Ron DeSantis had the most on the line of all the aspirants. With his flailing campaign, his failed “reset,” and his sagging poll numbers, he has been in desperate need of a boost. In his approximately twelve minutes of debate time, he hit Biden on inflation, denounced the exorbitant prices of Hunter Biden’s paintings, and pledged “energy dominance.” He only criticized Trump obliquely, not mentioning his name, for “coddling Fauci.” He waffled on aid to Ukraine, calling for the U.S. to send troops to the southern border, not to a faraway foreign land. Some of his remarks, especially on border security, were memorable, but most did little either to help or to harm him. And by shouting all of his answers, he did little to soften his unlikable persona.
All told, it was a strangely ordinary evening in the midst of extraordinarily abnormal times. Nothing that happened in Milwaukee will have caused Donald Trump the slightest unease for skipping the show.