Last night's debate was dominated by the man who didn't show up
When eight non-Trump Republican presidential candidates gathered in Milwaukee yesterday evening, they debated under two shadows: Donald Trump and the policy consensus that reigned before him. Those two forces work in tandem. The more GOP candidates appear to lean on pre-Trump talking points, the stronger Trump seems as an agent of political change.
Full of denunciations of spending and inflation, the economics portion of the debate had a particularly dipped-in-amber quality. Even though national polls have Trump leagues ahead of his primary opponents, few directly criticised the former president or even really discussed him — with the exceptions of former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. Vivek Ramaswamy wrapped himself in the style of Trump, down to his penchant for insulting his opponents. Meanwhile, former vice president Mike Pence instead allied himself to the conservatism of the pre-Trump era. It’s not surprising, then, that some of the spiciest moments of the debate featured both men.
Both foreign policy and abortion showed an image of a Republican party divided. The debate segment on Ukraine illustrated clear contrasts between traditional hawks and populists, but it also suggested possible divisions within even a post-Trump Republican Party. Many conservative foreign-policy veterans and members of the conventional Republican establishment (such as Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell) are major proponents of military assistance for Ukraine. Populists within the party have been more critical of Ukraine funding.
In line with his Trumpian branding, and in opposition to the other candidates, Vivek Ramaswamy took a hard line against increased funding for Ukraine. In one of the marquee exchanges of the night, Nikki Haley (who, by the way, served as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations) targeted Ramaswamy for his Ukraine position — and bundled into this attack an allegation that he would abandon Taiwan and Israel. This hinted at a divide within a populist GOP on foreign policy: whether to rebalance international commitments in response to a rising China or instead to withdraw more comprehensively from those commitments. Polling indicates that traditional national-defence messaging retains considerable appeal among many Republican primary voters.
Divisions over how to deal with abortion politics were also on full display in the debate. Pence and South Carolina senator Tim Scott both expressed support for a federal ban on abortion at the 15-week mark. North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum argued that states — and not the federal government — should set abortion policy. In a pointed dialogue with Pence, Haley emphasised the political challenges facing any ambitious federal abortion ban and instead said Republicans should focus on consensus-oriented policymaking at the federal level, such as restrictions on end-of-term abortions.
Throughout, a sustained vision for a post-Trump Republican Party remained unseen. Ron DeSantis’s economic platform does offer one potential synthesis of populist and conventionally conservative themes, but he stayed quiet for much of the debate and did not articulate that vision in a sustained way. Scott touched upon some “realignment” themes in his call to renew the American industrial base, but those points also needed more development.
A post-Trump political “realignment” on the Right could open up new fields for policy — on tech, financial regulations, health-care reform, industrial strategy, or legal immigration, for instance. If they hope to challenge Trump’s dominance of the GOP, his rivals might need to take up those issues.
At the moment, Trump is the clear frontrunner and has not yet collapsed on his own. The most likely route for a rival candidate to claim the nomination is to be an alternative — to present a vision that makes sense of the political disruption of the past decade and does not try either to retreat back to the comforting nostrums of 2011 or to provide a facsimile of Trumpism. More than having a “good night” in a debate, developing that alternative vision is an existential task for the rest of the pack.