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The First Republican Debate Was One Long Stare Into a Trump-Shaped Void

The battles to come between 2024’s many also-rans may not yield a presidential nominee, but they could determine the GOP’s future.

Al Drago/Getty Images

Fittingly, for a party now devoted to exercises in denial, the first Republican debate of the 2024 election cycle was a full-on attempt to manufacture an alternate reality ⁠in which Donald Trump, now some 40 points ahead of his nearest opponent, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, isn’t the prohibitive favorite for the party’s nomination. The bare fact that his victory isn’t yet a sure thing wasn’t quite enough to justify what amounted to an eight-candidate undercard debate, but the show did offer a rare glimpse at what the party’s trajectory without Trump’s victory in 2016 might have been⁠—and what it might yet be whenever he finally leaves the scene.

Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley has been among the most pointed of the candidates hoping for a reversion back to something like the post-Romney/pre-Trump consensus on the GOP’s future. Her campaign launch video rather bravely made the case that the Republican Party can’t expect to compete in presidential elections much longer if it can’t win popular majorities. That’s unfortunately untrue, but it’s a line of thought that made her sound more like a viable general election candidate than anyone else on the stage last night.

On abortion, for instance, though she’s promised to sign a 15-week federal ban if one comes across her desk as president, she did her best to force the rest of the field to a reality check⁠—Republicans will almost certainly lack the Senate votes for one, especially if the filibuster remains in place and the post-Dobbs environment remains politically costly for the party. “Can’t we all agree that we’re not going to put a woman in jail or give her the death penalty if she gets an abortion?” she asked.

Republicans can’t, actually, and therein lies their problem. She was on less solid ground with her case that the party’s profligate spending will be a liability. “Donald Trump added $8 trillion to our debt,” she reminded the audience, “and our kids are never going to forgive us for this.” Our kids aren’t likely to think much of that figure, but Biden’s rapid response team did and shouted Haley out in a tweet.

If Haley best represented the party’s recent pre-Trump past, Vivek Ramaswamy—the outsider pharmaceutical executive—did his utmost to frame himself as the party’s inevitable post-Trump future. The putative case for the Ramaswamy candidacy is that a Republican primary electorate that sent one of the most repulsive nativists in American history to the White House all of about 30 seconds ago might now be ready to make “a skinny guy with a funny last name,” as he said Wednesday night, their nominee.

They are not. Not yet. Ramaswamy knows this; this “campaign” and his kissing up to Trump⁠—who he called “the best president of the twenty-first century” last night⁠—make more sense as a job application for a post in his administration or, again, an introduction to the party that might serve him well in a future run under more favorable conditions. But real campaign or not, he’ll have to endure much more of the drubbing he got from his rivals as the race wears on. Chris Christie took the low-hanging fruit he was handed and chucked it straight at Ramaswamy’s head. “The last person in one of these debates who stood in the middle of the stage and said, ‘What’s a skinny guy with an odd last name doing up here?’ was Barack Obama,” he said to laughs. “And I’m afraid we’re dealing with the same type of amateur.”

Former Vice President Mike Pence and Haley took stuffier and more affronted jabs at Ramaswamy’s inexperience, but even if he ultimately tanks, it’s far from obvious that a party that has been taken by Trump’s outsider rhetoric and bombast will ultimately prefer the chidings of its grown-ups to the fizzy energy of younger candidates like Ramaswamy intent on following in Trump’s footsteps—and, in fact, pulling the party even further right on the rhetoric of cultural collapse than Trump and others have been willing to go. In one of the more interesting exchanges of the evening, Pence pushed back against Ramaswamy’s declaration of a “national identity crisis.”

“We don’t have an identity crisis, Vivek,” he said. “We are not looking for a new national identity. The American people are the most faith-filled, freedom-loving, idealistic, hardworking people the world has ever known. We just need government as good as our people.”

“We live in a dark moment,” Ramaswamy replied ominously. “We have to confront the fact that we’re in an internal, sort of cold culture civil war. You need to recognize that in order to actually win.”

For most of the race thus far, elite Republicans who agree have aligned themselves not with Ramaswamy but with Ron DeSantis, who has been hoping against hope that his anti-woke crusades in Florida might encourage Trump’s furthest-right backers to give him a look instead. That hasn’t happened, and nothing that transpired last night suggests it will anytime soon. He elected not to fight for the moderators’ or the audience’s attention all night; his most memorable moment was a forced concession that Pence had “done his duty” in refusing to help Trump overturn the 2020 election results on January 6. DeSantis remains a candidate in limbo⁠—stuck, by his own volition, between past and future, running against a man he both must and cannot criticize in order to win.

The task of being everything to everyone won’t get any easier as the campaign continues, but DeSantis, for now, is still faring better than the candidates who have chosen well-defined lanes. It seems no likelier this morning that he or any of the others will beat Trump for the nomination, but Democrats would be remiss not to understand the debate as a showcase of candidates who really could, if given the opportunity, defeat Joe Biden or their next nominee—particularly if the Republican Party continues bolstering its gains with non-college white voters with the non-college, nonwhite voters candidates like Haley, Scott, and Ramaswamy would likely take a serious interest in winning over. Trump will have to be carted away somehow before they can take that challenge up, of course. But that day might not be far off.