He wasn’t there in person, but Donald Trump was the big winner at the GOP’s 2024 primary debate. In a display of cowardice and moral corruption, six of the eight candidates said that they would vote for Trump even if the former President were convicted of the crimes for which he has been charged. Just Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson asserted they would not.
Mike Pence, unctuously auditioning to be the first choice of Christian fundamentalists, played the no-rules debate game well and had the most air time. All candidates on the stage – most of them grudgingly – conceded, he had fulfilled his Constitutional responsibility in certifying the 2020 election results. A personal target of the January 6th rioters, he surprisingly still remains wishy-washy when it comes to denouncing Trump. Pence thrashed about in word salad but finally said that anyone convicted of trying to overthrow the Constitution he had taken an oath to protect should not be able to serve in the highest office. That said, he indicated that, if Trump were the GOP nominee, he would support him. How has it come to this?
Nikki Haley may have gotten some traction from the sandbox squabbles that characterized the debate. Former ambassador to the United Nations, she understands foreign policy realities and effectively called Vivek Ramaswamy up short for his jejeune opposition to Ukraine and NATO’s fight against Vladimir Putin. Also a former governor, she projects some knowledge and authenticity about public policy. She was the only one to fault Republicans for their part in increasing the federal debt. While she is pro-life, she was effective in calling out the other candidates on the need for a reality check and for voicing an openness to some sort of consensus on the issue. She was clearly one of the grownups in the room.
Particularly shocking was entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, the millennial Trump-wannabe who was determined to control the dialogue unencumbered by any facts. His alt-right, extremist positions (bought and paid for by benefactors like billionaire Peter Thiel and the Federalist Society’s Leonard Leo) were robotically wrapped in repeated calls for moving on to a new generation. He was smug, dismissive of others, rattling off slogans and radical bromides and playing to an audience claque eager to show their wild support of him. Scary as hell. (My husband quipped that Ramaswamy has a “backpfeifengesicht,” a face that needs to be punched.”)
Ron DeSantis is just plain weird. He excelled in his ability to avoid direct answers. He held back raising his hand in answer to questions, checking first to see how others were responding. Nevertheless, 29 percent GOP debate watchers thought he did best, with Ramaswamy a few points behind. (Notably, 87 percent of those who felt DeSantis won the debate were those who were supporting him before the debate.) Despite the polls, I still feel that DeSantis’ studied smiles and programmed responses failed to connect with the audience as one might have expected for a candidate who, though farther and farther behind Donald Trump, is still running second.
Asa Hutchinson and Chris Christie’s respective credentials as non-Trump conservatives were on full display but garnered little support and many boos from the rabid audience. Christie’s toughness came through, and one can only hope he stays around long enough to have an impact on this race. No one asked him what responsibility he bears for helping Trump win in 2016.
North Carolina Senator Tim Scott was a real disappointment. The spirited, preacher-like performance he had shown in his announcement speech, his energy and his moving life story were reduced to soundbite parody. He came across as just another go-along-to-get-along party hack trying to appeal to the evangelicals comprising much of Trump’s base.
Apparently no standards were set for audience behavior, and attendees were increasingly out of control. Their unruly behavior nearly derailed the debate and underlined the low level to which these political **!!# shows have sunk. Fox moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum lamely tried to keep the discussion focused. They did ask some legitimate policy questions, but their fecklessness hit a low point when they let DeSantis hijack a simple question on the human impact on climate change, which ended up going unanswered by any of the candidates (save Ramaswamy, who declared the climate crisis a hoax) . Real-time fact checking was non-existent, and you can refer to the Washington Post fact checkers for the most glaring lies.
Twenty-four hours later, the debate faded into the background as television viewers fixated on the OJ-white-bronco-like movement of SUVs transporting the former President to the notorious Fulton County Jail to be fingerprinted and photographed like the accused felon he is. As expected, Trump is already monetizing his well practiced mug shot.
I don’t know which is more depressing: the degradation of the Presidency and threat to the Constitution posed by Donald Trump or the Republican Party’s moral corruption, cowardice and normalization of his despicable and criminal behavior.