By Colby Etherton
On Wednesday, August 23, 2023, the first debate of the GOP 2024 primary season was held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The debate featured eight candidates: South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Rob DeSantis, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and former Vice President Mike Pence.
The debate came at a peculiar and unprecedented time as the current frontrunner for the 2024 GOP nomination, former president Donald J. Trump, has been charged in four criminal cases, involving felony accounts pertaining to hush money payments to a porn star, hoarding classified documents, election interference in the state of Georgia and his efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
While Trump was not on the debate stage, his presence still loomed over the debate for much of the evening. Candidates were asked whether they’d still support him if he won the Republican nomination despite charges made against him. Notably, six candidates raised their hands saying they’d still support him as a candidate, while Asa Hutchinson definitively said that he would not and Chris Christie made something of a half gesture.
Trump on his part refused to show up for the debate, saying that he had nothing to gain from doing so and leaving an open-ended question as to whether he will choose to attend a future debate, if any at all. Regardless of whether or not he does, his shadow will likely still loom over all debates as the other candidates tow a complicated line between defending him and trying to differentiate themselves. It’s a bizarre, contradictory task. It’s obvious that most of the candidates feel that if they go on the attack against Trump too hard in these debates, that they’ll lose a portion of the Republican base, yet they also have the dilemma of trying to cast themselves as an alternative. Haley is an example, painting herself as something of a “sensible moderate,” while Ramaswamy was the only full-throated defender of Trump. It was clear that the other candidates viewed Ramaswamy as a proxy of Trump in his absence, as he got the bulk of attacks from the other candidates throughout the evening.
What continues to be alarmingly apparent in Republican debates is a trend of deviating from debating on tangible, real issues that need problem solving and a tendency to venture off track into an almost WWE-esque sparring match to see who can dunk the hardest on their opponents. The Republican party has shown a lack of interest in creating actual policy for a number of years, notably when the RNC’s 2016 platform was recycled for their 2020 platform, and the far right politicians in the party seem more interested in stalling or preventing government from working than providing solutions.