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The Unlikelihood of a Real GOP Challenge to Trump

Lance Moore

GOP Presidential Debate 2023: Milwaukee, WI

On Wednesday night, the first Republican primary debate of the 2024 election cycle proved nothing more than one undeniable truth. That at this rate, four-time indicted former President Trump will most likely be the party’s nominee, even when his new accessories become an ankle monitor or an orange Department of Corrections jumpsuit. Held in the all-importantbattleground state of Wisconsin, the eight Republican candidateson stage haphazardly brandished their conservative credentials as they did nothing to inspire any hope of a true challenge to former President Trump, who currently has a forty-point lead in the polls over all the Republican challengers.

The candidates debated the standard conservative policythemes one could expect, from blue state urban crime and cutting taxes and spending on “entitlements” to weakening the federal government by slashing funding for some federal agencies and addressing the national debt. Also thrown in there as if for good measure were the topics of Hunter Biden, and abolishing teachers unions. Then came the predictable clashesover the topics of abortion, immigration, climate change skepticism and pro-fossil fuel energy independence (because it wouldn’t be the republicans without a bit of healthy science denial) and continued U.S. support of Ukraine. Trump’s federal and state indictments were also mentioned but this culminated in the standout moment of the evening when the candidates were asked to raise their hands to show if they’d still support Trump as the Republican nominee even if he is convicted for his accused crimes, resulting in all but two candidates raising their hands. Therefore, begging the often-unspoken question in conservative media, “Why run for president if you refuse to do the one thing required to get the republican nomination, beating Trump?”

Vivek Ramaswamy, the young Silcon Valley biotech entrepreneur and first-time political candidate, stood center stage as basically a surrogate for Trump. If the die hard MAGAfaithful wanted a new and fiercely loyal champion of Trump, Ramaswamy sure wanted to be their man. He touted the all too familiar trope of labeling himself a “political outsider”, while continually criticizing the “professional politicians” on the stage with him, in a performance that mirrored Trump during the 2016 primaries. All while leaning into controversial positions being the only candidate on the stage to openly call climate change a “hoax”, to avowing isolationist rhetoric stating America needs to focus internally and cease providing further support to Ukraine. Notably, this young Trumpian flair seemed to help him overshadow the man who is currently number two in most polls behind Trump, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who had an uneventful and forgettable night that definitely won’t help stop criticism of his “robotic” and “awkward” style as his once energized campaign continues to flounder.

Ramaswamy did however have some challenges throughout the night, most notably from former Vice President Mike Pence, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Pence, a man not known for having an attack dog debate style, was visibly irritated with Ramaswamy as they clashed over their definitions of American values, Ramaswamy’s inexperience, and Pence’s refusal in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election to decertify the election in favor of Trump’s.

Haley, perhaps taking upon itherself to embody the Reagan era traditional neoconservative republican (and be at least semi-sane), had her best moment of the night directing anger towards Ramaswamy in defense of U.S. support for Ukraine, stating, “A win for Russia is a win for China.”, before going on to directly attack Ramaswamy’s lack of foreign policy experience.

Christie, one of two candidates on the stage who have openly and directly criticized Trump for his many criminal indictments (the other being Former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson), made Ramaswamy his primary target in the absence of Trump. In a hail of consistent boos from a rowdy audience, barely contained by the overrun Fox News debate moderators, Christie and Ramaswamy went head-to-head addressing Trump’s multiple indictments, to which Ramaswamy referred to the “weaponization of the Department of Justice (DOJ).

While Christie continually attacked Trump’s calls to suspend the Constitution, his behavior while in and out of office, which Christie referred to as the “normalization of criminal conduct”, while declaring Ramaswamy a flip flopper who praises Trump in public but criticizes him in his recently published book.

The main issue of the night was undoubtedly abortion and reproductive rights. With a heavy focus on the “pro-life” faith of each candidate.

Since the Supreme Court’s striking down of Roe v Wade, between the 2020 midterm elections and every state special election since (in both blue and red states), reproductiveand abortion rights have been front and center. With many, if not all results skewing heavily in favor pro-choice candidates that has seemed to show the republican party as out of step with voters.

The candidates on stage appear to have missed that memo. All the candidates in varying degrees touted staunchly pro-life conservative records, with many having voted for or signed six-week abortion bans during their times in elected office. Pence, DeSantis, and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott went even further to show openness to the idea of an outright federal abortion ban. Haley, who holds actively pro-life views herself, broke with the crowd of men on stage to state that a federal abortion ban must be reached in a bipartisan manner, although she acknowledged this is unlikely. Haley also went on to defend a woman’s right to be able to choose her own reproductive rights once again showing herself to the be semi-sane one of the lot.

There were some major notable policy omissions. Police and criminal justice reform was barely even mentioned, with a primary focus on urban crime and homelessness. Gun rights and further avenues to address soaring gun violence and mass shootings were completely ignored which is no surprise. The favorite conservative culture war rallying cry of “woke-ism” was surprisingly only uttered once through the entire debate.

Conservative super-majority state legislatures passing book bans, and hundreds of bills restricting LGTBQ rights was not even brought up by either moderator or candidate. In fact, the only brief discussion of LGTBQ rights that occurred was that over transgender individuals competing in sports, with Scott summarizing the whole conversation with his line, “if God made you a man, you play sports against men.” Additionally, current democratic incumbent President Biden and “Bidenonmics” was only mildly acknowledged throughout the debate. Candidates discussed the economic plight of voters facing high gas prices, grocery costs, and sticky inflation, but when it came to the topic of spending and the national debt, the candidates on the stage attacked each other. Most surprisingly, Haley chose to go afterTrump, Pence, Scott, and other Congressional republicans for adding eight trillion dollars to the national debt under the Trump/Pence administration.

In the end, not one of the candidates on the stage “won” the debate, despite some having notable performances. Each candidate mostly cowered at the idea of attacking Trump for long periods of time. The anti-Trump voices of Christie and Hutchinson mostly fell flat in Trump’s absence or were drowned out by an obviously pro-Trump Milwaukee crowd. This field of presidential candidates say that they want to be president, and maybe they even believe that on some level, but most either flatly refuse to attempt to beat the man who is currently the head of their party or are so far down in the polls not even a miracle could make them competitive.

So, what are they all doing there? Some may be running for the idea of VP nod from Trump, a cabinet seat in a potential second Trump administration, or hope they can position themselves as the future of the party after Trump is gone. Sure, there is a strong chance of Trump being convicted on multiple counts of the indictments, and even being sentenced to prison, but this is unchartered territory. The Republican Party could simply commit to nominating one of the other candidates on the stage in this debate to challenge Biden.

But Party is trapped between a rock and a hard place, between the MAGA faction and the party’s plans to retake the White House and control of Congress. If they abandon Trump, he could easily turn on the party and turn his base away from committing to support Republican’s up and down the ticket.

The truth is, current President Biden and former President Trump were the “winners” of the debate, as the political cycle undoubtedly progresses toward the inevitable Biden vs Trump rematch of 2024 while the rest simply theatrics to indulge the egos of candidates who never really stood a chance.

Image: USA Today

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