With just over a year to go until the 2024 US presidential election, the country’s primaries should be the place to observe the sharpening of political debate in the world’s leading superpower. It is the toughest testing ground for political talent, as candidates get exposed to the furnace of live televised grillings. It should sort the political grown-ups from the juveniles.
Yet this was not the story of last week’s second Republican debate, or the first in Milwaukee last month. The Republican candidates should be put through the wringer, with the best candidate rising to the top. Instead, they are all sinking faster than the Titanic. It says something that the winner of the debate was the man who was not even at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. Yes, Donald Trump once again ducked the chance to debate his rivals or, if you are skeptical, give them a chance to challenge him directly. He was missing, but he was also very much in action. He will not bother with November’s debate in Miami either, but be assured he will be in the headlines.
Trump’s message was clear: The seven also-rans can tear chunks out of each other and bicker away, while he was in Michigan reaching out to blue-collar workers. Trump has started his presidential campaign and is skipping the primaries as a foregone conclusion. He is wondering out loud why he is not just reanointed as the chosen one. He has a point. The polls show that he has a lead of more than 40 points. The former president is not bothering to reach out to the Republican base, as is usual in the primary season. Typically, pre-nomination candidates focus on core Republican issues such as abortion and immigration. Such is Trump’s confidence, he is skipping that phase and is instead focusing on reaching out to independents.
The counterarguments would include pointing out that Trump is facing numerous indictments and legal battles. In all, he is the defendant in four cases and he faces 91 felony charges. He also failed in 2020 and may struggle to win over those who have never voted for him before. Trump is much derided, but he is a very street-smart campaigner. He sucks the oxygen of publicity away from rivals by even making a virtue of his absence. The story always reverts to him. Every time one of the candidates pointed out Trump was not there, viewers just started thinking, “who can blame him?” I doubt Chris Christie’s rehearsed label of Trump as “Donald Duck” will catch on. These candidates are fishing for votes in a pool well stocked with Trump backers.
Vivek Ramaswamy, the founder of a biotech company, has clearly wound up all the other candidates, who can barely conceal their loathing for him. They did not appreciate being labeled as having been “bought and paid for,” given, as Tim Scott stated, Ramaswamy himself was “just in business with the Chinese Communist Party and the same people who funded Hunter Biden.” It was Ramaswamy who best summed up the quality of the debate when he said: “Thank you for speaking while I’m interrupting.” Nikki Haley, the former US ambassador to the UN under Trump, best summed up Ramaswamy when she quipped: “Honestly, every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say.” Not many viewers would have felt any candidate left them smarter. They all just spoke over each other in an unintelligible swell of noise.
It is not clear anyone emerged from the pack. Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor, did little to stem his slide in the polls. Did Haley just about edge it? Maybe. But a single anti-Trump candidate did not come to the fore – someone who could unite the part of the Republican party, largely the traditional wing, that objects to Trump. Those less critical of Trump from the podium may well harbor ambitions of becoming his running mate, but he may well look beyond them all. What makes all this worse is that the Democrats are not in a healthy position either. Whatever one’s views on the record of President Joe Biden, voters are skeptical about his age and whether he should run for another term. The polls have him nine to 10 points back in a contest with Trump. If a second-term Biden administration is unpalatable, where are the serious Democrat challengers? Where are the Democrats’ big ideas?
What should the outside world make of this? Above all, everyone should be worried about the lack of genuine commitment to democracy and the rule of law on display. The denigration and dehumanization of immigrants should also be seen as chilling and an inspiration to the far right everywhere. International affairs have scarcely made an appearance in the two debates. Yet, one clear dividing line in the Republican ranks is what to do on the issue of Ukraine. The isolationist streak that Trump has personified wants to cut down support for Kyiv. DeSantis and Ramaswamy are in favor of this approach. A more traditional approach of backing Ukraine was adopted by Haley, Mike Pence and Christie. The candidates attacked Ramaswamy for his business ties with China, highlighting the way Trump has made an anti-China position a given in Republican circles.
Climate change should be a major concern to many. Ramaswamy considers the climate change agenda a “hoax.” Haley stood out for acknowledging that it is real. Other candidates tended to duck the issue entirely. Nobody on the outside should be happy to see this decline in the standard of American political debate. The world has plenty of grave challenges ahead. A top-level, forward-looking American leadership is required. Fresh political plans, strategies and ideas should be developed and debated.
But where are the big ideas? Worse, where are they going to come from? The two Republican debates thus far have been a festival of boredom, lame jokes and third-rate candidates. Meanwhile, the federal government narrowly avoided another shutdown. Bipartisan relations remain Siberian. This is not the time to be having a shutdown about the debate over the future of America and the world.