As widely predicted, ex-president Trump will not be in Milwaukee on August 29 for the first 2024 Republican presidential debate. Rather than risking more statements that might be used against him in the prosecution of one of 91 felony charges, he will be available to his supporters via a pre-taped interview with Tucker Carlson. My guess is that about half of America’s Republicans will snuggle up with him.
Is there anything more interesting than commiserating about the stolen 2020 election? Of course, Trump will also discuss his demand for justice in the Hunter Biden case and the need to remove deranged and phony prosecutors from certain pending criminal cases. We’ll also hear compelling arguments about why Trump’s trials should be moved to 2026, although, by airtime he may have changed his mind and propose 2040. It takes a lot of time to prepare a defense when you’re charged with more than seven dozen crimes.
Trump was once entertaining on the debate stage, but that was 2016 when he was still fresh and talked about things (sometimes) other than himself. Most of us interested in learning more about Trump’s challenges welcome his absence. His absence in Milwaukee is only a problem for his followers, most of whom can’t stand the sight of politicians challenging the defeated ex-president.
Curiously, Trump’s absence is a problem for the few Republicans on the debate stage courageous enough to call out Trump. It is easier to attack Trump to his face than to an empty podium. And, for some of the candidates, their main purpose for running is to give the GOP an outside chance of winning an election. They see Trump as unelectable and believe his nomination cedes the election to President Biden. It is harder to make the case against Trump when he not in the room.
Why aren’t Trump’s challengers contrasting their ideas with his? One theory is cowardice. Trump was successful in remaking the Republican party and arguably winning the White House in 2016 by appealing to anger, racism, and resentment against “elites.” Nobody running against Trump has the courage to lay out an agenda materially different than Trump’s.
And it gets worse. Some of the candidates feel obligated to defend the man whom they are running against. The dangerous Vivek Ramaswamy, emerging as one of the stronger candidates in the race, even volunteered to serve as a lawyer for Trump. Ron “DeSanctimonius” received talking points from his campaign to prepare for the debate which advise him not to attack Trump.
You can call those two candidates pathetic. Other candidates, like Nikki Haley, are more circumspect in their discussions of Trump. The former U.N. Ambassador, for example, defends Trump’s foreign policy, avoids direct criticism of him and argues for “a new generation of leadership.”
Can you think of any bold new ideas being offered by Trump’s challengers? Actually, there are some if you are broad-minded about the terms “bold” and “new.” Chris Christie suggests changes are needed in
Social Security to allow the program to survive. Trump has declared the program off limits. How do you think “attacking” social security will work out for the former New Jersey Governor?
And Mr. Ramaswamy wants to raise the voting age to 25, with exceptions for those with military service or who are first responders. That idea may be “bold,” but isn’t good unless your goal is to remove younger voters, who often tend to vote Democratic, from the electorate.
In some ways, Ramaswamy, who also is outspoken about eliminating affirmative action and other programs intended to produce a more equitable, just society is just trying to out-Trump Trump. He’s “Trump without the baggage.” That description doesn’t work for many of us. We see Trump’s reactionary, backwards policies as part of his “baggage,” every bit as much of a problem as his sedition.
So, what should we expect in the August 23rd debate? Not much. The first debate will be the last for some of the candidates, including poor Mike Pence, cast aside by Trump for not joining the coup attempt and rejected by his party for the same reason. There will be a lot of shouting, interruptions, and a few boos from the audience when candidates speak ill of the missing Mr. Trump.
With luck, the forum will provide a boost to a few candidates. How will former Texas Congressman Will Hurd do? He’s got a remarkable resume. How about Senator Tim Scott (SC)? Will the exposure he gets be enough for him to gain traction, to get GOP voters to listen to him? And will Christie’s attacks on the absent Trump begin to resonate?
Without Trump, the show will be a bit tedious, a circus without the main clown. And, just as I was finishing this piece, Trump is announcing that he may skip the second and possibly more debates. Sad!
J.E. Dean is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant writing on politics, government, and other subjects.