They laughed, they bragged, they boasted. They pledged fidelity to the Constitution. They cheerfully pledged to invade Mexico and dismantle the Department of Education. They got annoyed at Vivek Ramaswamy, for being annoying.
But in terms of the structure of the 2024 presidential race, the eight Republican primary candidates who participated in Wednesday’s debate resolved nothing.
After six months or so of official and unofficial primary campaigning, the gap between Donald Trump—who skipped out on the debate to get weird with Tucker Carlson—and his next-closest competitor in the Republican primary has only grown, to the point where it’s not entirely clear who his next-closest competitor is—or whether there will ever be a close competitor. So there was more urgency to this debate than your typical first debate, which is usually viewed as more of a meet-and-greet than anything else. Someone needed to emerge.
Unfortunately for Republicans seeking an alternative to Trump, that someone who needed to emerge was still likely Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. The Trump team, judging by their daily hostilities towards DeSantis, still views him as the nearest threat, and the only candidate with a broad enough appeal to and recognition with the Republican base to mount a credible threat.
DeSantis didn’t have a horrible debate. But he was a supporting actor rather than the evening’s target, even in the center-stage position. Sure, it’s much easier to be a factional candidate, like Chris Christie or Ramaswamy, then a viable one who might win. You have to keep the whole coalition together. But DeSantis, too often, tipped over from strategic ambiguity into face-smacking squishiness.
A few times, moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum—who did an overall fine job—tried the old “raise your hand” technique, which is really what all the questions should be on a stage where eight candidates are prepared to launch into talking points at the drop of a hat.
When asked about whether human behavior was contributing to climate change, only Hutchinson could half-raise a hand before DeSantis cut off the moderators, saying they should debate the issue instead. When asked whether the candidates would still support Trump in the event he was the nominee and a convicted felon, four candidates—Doug Burgum, Nikki Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Tim Scott—raised their hands, while DeSantis kind of half-raised his after sampling the air. On a question of continuing to fund Ukraine, DeSantis mumbled something about how Europe needed to “step up” and help more, and then he insisted that he would not send U.S. troops to fight in Ukraine. No one had asked that.
But the most pitiful DeSantis moment came when he was asked whether Pence had done the right thing on Jan. 6, 2021, by turning down Trump’s entreaties to help overturn the election.
A strategist I spoke to weeks ago predicted this would be the very first question at the debate, and that each viable candidate would be asked it. It was not a surprise. There was time to prepare.
Sen. Tim Scott, who didn’t support electoral objections on Jan. 6, said, “Absolutely, he did the right thing.” Haley agreed, and Christie was effusive in his praise of Pence that day. (Probably a little too effusive for Pence’s liking; Christie is toxic among the GOP base.)
When DeSantis was put on the spot, though, he launched into a tirade about the weaponization of the Justice Department. The moderators noted that he wasn’t answering the question.
“I know,” DeSantis said, before continuing with his prepared remarks.
Eventually, when pressed, DeSantis conceded, “Mike did his duty, I got no beef with him.” Hey, guy wants to do his constitutional thing? Sure, no biggie.
Despite what is liable to be an extravagant effort by the well-funded DeSantis machine’s backers to argue that he hit a grand slam in the debate and manufacture some oomph, the obvious centerpiece of the show was Vivek Ramaswamy.
Ramaswamy has been credited with a “surge” in the polls of late. Sure, he’s gone from about 4 percent to about 10, which we do suppose qualifies as a “surge” in the molecule-sized space underneath Trump’s pressed thumb.
What most surprised me, at least, was how seriously other second- and third-tier competitors had internalized this idea that Ramaswamy—a nimble, red-meat-feeding imp who’s sure to go on to a successful post-campaign career hosting a podcast—needed to be swatted down as a serious threat. It wasn’t DeSantis who took the “sledgehammer” to him, though, as his super PAC’s leaked strategy memo suggested he do. (Given the leak, DeSantis essentially couldn’t follow any of its recommendations for fear of looking inauthentic.)
Christie, Pence, and Haley all swapped in as Ramaswamy’s primary antagonists. Christie, who predictably spent the night getting jeered at for going after Trump in absentia, performed a singing late-career rendition of his you little twerp routine on Ramaswamy. Haley, whose campaign needed to do something to keep her in the mix, had her biggest applause line of the night when she told Ramaswamy that “you have no foreign policy experience, and it shows.” By that point, even the audience may have had it with the kid’s cockiness.
Pence truly seemed to loathe Ramaswamy. One can understand why. Pence is a former vice president who was nearly killed performing his constitutional duties, and barely qualified for the debate. Once on stage, he had to execute a strategy of swatting down a child who is getting more attention than he is.
One candidate with the financial resources, the respect of his peers, and a favorable view from the Republican electorate—elements that should make for a competitive candidacy!—was Tim Scott. But in his affability, he seemed almost like an afterthought on stage. He didn’t really challenge anyone, or do much to distinguish what makes him different from, say, Pence (whose brand of room-temperature water might not be everyone’s acquired taste, but who is a polished, prepared, and sharp-elbowed debater who’s rarely caught off-guard). It showed the difficult question Scott faces if he does want to try to win this thing, instead of just position himself for the VP race: Is he willing to get his hands dirty? Doesn’t look like it.
We got some light differences between candidates about the wisdom of a federal abortion ban, the continued funding of Ukraine, how best to attack Mexico, and what the precise mechanics for eliminating the Department of Education should be. (Legislatively, ignore most of this; all they’d be able to pass is tax cuts.) What we didn’t see was anyone who even came close to easing Trump’s grip on the nomination; if anything, a distracting melee with Vivek Ramaswamy, who is the word “distraction” manifested, will now be the central subject of the undercard jockeying.
By Thursday afternoon, all cameras will be on Trump, again, as he turns himself in for an arraignment, again. During the debate, Fox News even showed a live feed of the entry to Fulton County jail, a day before Trump would even show. The subtext was clear. The main character simply took a night off, there’s no understudy, and the program resumes in Georgia on Thursday.