Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

Five takeaways from contentious first GOP primary debate

Trump-less debate was overshadowed by ex-president’s legal woes and dominance in the polls

John Bowden
Washington DC
Thursday 24 August 2023 11:04 BST
All the times Donald Trump was mentioned by the GOP candidates

The first Republican debate of 2023 was a brawl, as expected, but the absence of the party’s frontrunner left the remaining contenders picking targets almost at random.

And while the party will likely insist otherwise at next year’s Republican national convention, the GOP appears to be bitterly divided on a number of key issues — issues that are, for the most part, settled arguments for their counterparts on the left.

Tonight’s showdown in Wisconsin was a Trump-free event where the former president nevertheless cast a long shadow despite not actually being physically present. From questions specifically about the former president to a brash, combative performance from a businessman and political newcomer (sound familiar?), the first matchup of the 2024 Republican field was as much of a spectacle as reporters expected and for which Democrats were possibly hoping.

Let’s break down what we learned tonight:

1. Vivek Ramaswamy wants to be Trump 2.0. His opponents are not about to let that happen.

The “standout” perfomance tonight, if one can call it that, came from Vivek Ramaswamy. It was his night to draw a line between himself and the seasoned politicians onstage, and he did exactly that. Whether it was a performance as effective as Donald Trump’s debut in 2016 remains to be seen, however, as rivals Nikki Haley, Chris Christie and Mike Pence were unwilling to play the role of doormat so effortlessly perfected by Trump rivals Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush in 2016.

Mr Ramaswamy came out of the gate swinging at anyone who would (rhetorically) come near him. At one point he swung at everyone, declaring himself the only candidate “not bought and sold” onstage. He also stole Nikki Haley’s “new generation of leadership” argument and weaponised it against, again, everyone around him as he declared that it was time for new ideas and an outsider willing to battle the “federal administrative state”.

It was, in many ways, a refined version of the message and image that Donald Trump successfully crafted in 2016. But it’s not 2016 anymore, and America has just come out of four years of a presidency led by a businessman who campaigned as an outsider willing to battle the “deep state”. The question for Mr Ramaswamy after Wednesday is, will that shtick work twice?

2. Mike Pence played the role of human political football

Did Mike Pence do the right thing?

Boy, that must have been an awkward question to answer while the guy is standing right there, serenely staring ahead. But that was how Fox News chose to broach the broader questoin of January 6 and the attack on the Capitol: by focusing on whether Mr Pence was correct to say that he didn’t have the contitutional authority to interfere in the certification of Joe Biden’s victory — or, to put it another way, by refusing to sign on to a half-baked attempt to recognise slates of Trump-supporting “electors” from states that actually voted for Mr Biden.

Each candidate was put to the fire and asked the question directly. And in the end, this may have been the most revealing moment of the night. We learned at this moment that there really is only one Donald Trump. Even Mr Ramaswamy, who pledged to pardon Mr Trump should he take the presidency, was unwilling to take the leap that Mr Trump doubtlessly would have taken were he present: to declare his persisting belief (or at least willingness to spread) the lie that the election was “stolen”, and to take the side of the rioters who stormed the Capitol and left lawmakers in fear for their lives. The only real voice of support for those conspiracies in the 2024 field will come from Mr Trump himself — who remains the frontrunner, of course.

3. The consequences of Dobbs continue to leave the GOP floundering for a consensus on a national abortion ban

Republicans onstage at Wednesday’s debate were unified in their opposition to abortion. But that unity ends pretty quickly when you get into the actual logisitics of the issue.

If one were to ask a stage full of Democrats in 2023 whether they would support a national, or even local, bans on abortion the answer would be a resounding “no”. But at the debate in Milwaukee, the assembled candidates were all over the place. Some, like Mike Pence, supported the Dobbs vs Jackson Women’s Health decision that tossed out federal protections for abortion rights. Others, like Nikki Haley, did not, deriding it as a decision that “unelected judges” had no authority to make.

All the times Donald Trump was mentioned by the GOP candidates

Some, like Tim Scott, strongly supported the idea of a national abortion ban after 15 weeks into the pregnancy. Others thought that was too restrictive, or would galvanise Democrats and supporters of abortion rights in states where opposition to the practice is low. Gov Doug Burgum disagreed with the idea that Congress had the authority to pass such a law at all, and derided the GOP for abandoning the idea of big government not watching over one’s shoulder.

Even as Mike Pence criticised Ms Haley for saying she would seek “consensus” on the issue with independents and Democrats, it was clear the GOP has no consensus of their own. And that doesn’t bode well for the party if it makes a serious push for a ban on abortion at the federal level.

4. Ukraine as a cudgel against the foreign affairs novice

Foreign policy rarely gets much play in primary debates. But when the issue of a foreign war’s cost becomes a domestic policy issue, the conversation changes dramatically.

One of the biggest blowups of the night came over the issue of continued financial support for Ukraine’s military, which has held up an impressive defence against Russian invaders and retaken territory with heroic offensives thanks largely to a massive campaign of western military shipments and other foreign aid.

As the candidates addressed the conflict and the growing cost for US taxpayers Wednesday evening, Ms Haley used the issue to eviscerate Mr Ramaswamy over his lack of experience and supposed corresponding lack of knowledge when it came to geopolitics and countering the global powers of Russia and China. Drawing on her experience as UN ambassador, she referenced the news of the day — the reported sudden death of Russian coup leader Yevgeny Prigozhin — and depicted the entrepreneur as a political lightweight who would appease a “murderer” like Vladimir Putin.

“The problem that Vivek doesn’t understand is, he wants to hand Ukraine to Russia, he wants to let China eat Taiwan,” she charged, as he protested that the statement was “false”. She went on: “You don’t do that to friends.”

5. Ron DeSantis missed his chance

There’s a reason Mr DeSantis has not been mentioned up until just now in this piece.

Centre stage at Wednesday’s debate, the would-be frontrunner (if you ignore Donald Trump, the actual frontrunner) was almost an afterthought. On a night when analysts on the left and right alike agreed that his faltering campaign needed a boost, the Florida governor delivered a handful of canned lines touting his record in the Sunshine State and ... that was about it. There were no memorable jabs at rivals onstage. There were no attention-grabbing moments of Mr DeSantis rising above the squabbling, or even scoring points against the moderators — one attempt at the latter led to vocal accusations of him dodging their questions by the other candidates.

Mr DeSantis can expect to leave Milwaukee in exactly the same situation in which he found himself when he arrived: second place behind a dominant frontrunner, slowly losing ground to a handful of rivals in key states that could easily spark a movement of support to his rivals were he to lose those early primaries and caucuses.

Perhaps his greatest relief of the evening came from the simple fact that by avoiding conflict with his rivals on Wednesday, Mr DeSantis also avoided the possibility of being torn apart by a more aggressive and exacting opponent, like Chris Christie.

But it’s hard to say how that strategy could lead to winning the nomination.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in