September 28, 2023 - 10:30am

With national primary polls giving Trump a considerable lead, his rivals’ only hope of beating him is to change the dynamic of the race. It’s not clear any of them did that last night, in a debate characterised by little more than crosstalk and fury. 

Only former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and Florida governor Ron DeSantis levelled any significant criticisms of Trump, while the other candidates seemed more intent on attacking each other. South Carolina senator Tim Scott notably got into a spat with Nikki Haley about the cost of curtains in her official residence as ambassador to the United Nations. Yes, curtains.

The GOP has fundamentally shifted to the positions Trump championed in 2016. By and large, the candidates agreed on hawkishness on both illegal immigration and China: Haley even proposed suspending normal trade relations with the latter until it tamps down on the flow of fentanyl into the US. 

But, though these are now practically settled issues, Trump’s rivals can’t match his original madcap heterogeneity on policy. Trump often attacks his rivals in the GOP from both the Right and the centre — and sometimes even from the Left (as seen in his recent break with pro-life activists). Many of his challengers have therefore been forced to try and position themselves to the Right of Trump. But it’s still unclear what the most effective strategy looks like. 

For instance, some populist-aligned Republicans have spoken favourably about the United Auto Workers strike; Missouri senator Josh Hawley even recently joined them on the picket line. On the debate stage, however, the strike received a more mixed reaction. Scott argued that the workers were expecting too much, praised economic growth, and attacked Joe Biden. Haley and North Dakota governor Doug Burgum developed more of a structural critique of the way that Biden climate policies and inflation may exacerbate workers’ worries. However, there was not necessarily the full-throated endorsement of the strike that some Right-populists have offered.

Another telling moment of avoidance happened when Mike Pence was asked about the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. He immediately pivoted to talking about mass shootings. When the moderators pressed him on this topic, he spoke generally about the importance of funnelling federal healthcare funds to the individual states to manage.

In his 2016 campaign, by contrast, Trump simultaneously pledged to repeal the ACA and to “take care of everyone”. That rebuke of austerity probably helped draw some working-class voters to him. Yet during the Trump presidency, Republicans never settled on a policy package that addressed voter anxieties about health care — which is perhaps why their effort to repeal and replace the ACA foundered. And if last night was any guide, Trump’s challengers don’t have an alternative.

This lack of vision could prove their undoing. A recent poll of New Hampshire and Iowa voters indicated that fewer than a quarter of Republicans there are locked-in Trump supporters. There could be a window for his rivals here — if they can make a sustained case as an alternative to Trump and show a similar creativity in forming a coalition. And if they don’t? The inertia of the race will continue to favour the former president.

Fred Bauer is a writer from New England.