ANALYSIS: At First GOP Debate, Trump Absent but Trumpism Reigns

2024 Republican presidential aspirants clashed over policy differences, struggled to address the ‘elephant not in the room’

  • Published In: Politics
  • Last Updated: Aug 25, 2023

Republican presidential candidates participated in the first debate of the 2024 GOP primary on Wednesday, as Wyoming issues took focus. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, File)

By Jacob Gardenswartz

Special to the Wyoming Truth

It took exactly 89 minutes before former South Carolina Governor and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley finally had seen enough.

“Y’all need to get control of this debate,” she chastised Fox News moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, struggling to shout over her competitors as they squabbled with each other.

“We’re getting control of the debate,” Baier promised, one of many aspirational assurances broadcast in Wednesday’s Republican presidential primary debate — the first of the 2024 election cycle.

After a complicated formula of polling averages and fundraising quotas determined the qualifying criteria, eight candidates were ultimately cleared to participate: Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and North Dakota Gov. Burgum.

Notably absent: former President Donald Trump, the far and away frontrunner described by moderators as the “elephant not in the room,” who opted to skip the debate for a pre-taped interview with former Fox News personality Tucker Carlson instead.

“I just felt it would be more appropriate not to do the debate,” Trump told Carlson. “I don’t think it’s right to do it if you’re leading by 50, 60 [points].”

Participating or not, Trump’s presence was felt throughout the debate, both in the policies emphasized by the candidates and the personas they embodied.

Ramaswamy, a 38-year-old political novice, most emulated the former president in style and substance, lashing out at his opponents over a dozen times, cracking jokes and pledging his deference to Trump.

Former President Donald Trump opted not to participate in the debate but rather speak with ex-Fox News personality Tucker Carlson. (Photo via X / Tucker Carlson) 

“Join me making a commitment that on day one, you would pardon Donald Trump,” he scolded Pence and his other competitors. “I’m the only candidate on this stage that had the courage to actually say it.”

But Ramaswamy wasn’t the only candidate to defend Trump. When the former president’s many criminal indictments were brought up about an hour into the forum, all but two candidates — Christie and Hutchinson — promised to support him even if he’s convicted.

“Whether or not you believe that the criminal charges are right or wrong, the conduct is beneath the office of President of the United States,” Christie said, prompting a loud chorus of boos from the audience.

“This is the great thing about this country,” he responded. “Booing is allowed, but it doesn’t change the truth.”

Asked later whether Pence was right to disobey Trump’s order to ignore the will of the voters and illegally overturn the results of the 2020 election, some struggled to find their footing.

“This election is not about January 6th of 2021. It’s about January 20th of 2025,” DeSantis argued, suggesting “Democrats would love” it if Republicans focused on relitigating the 2020 race instead of other issues.

But pressed further, the Florida governor conceded that on the election certification question, “Mike did his duty; I got no beef with him.” Most other candidates agreed.

And Pence, for his part, delivered among his most fervent defenses of his conduct on Jan. 6 to date.

Trump “asked me to put him over the Constitution,” Pence said. “I chose the Constitution, and I always will.”

Wyoming policy priorities take center stage

Where the candidates agreed, it was on issues most relevant to Wyomingites, including energy policy and federal government “overreach.”

Candidates across the board pledged support for more domestic fossil fuel extraction and attacked the Biden administration for pushing to decarbonize the energy sector.

“This isn’t that complicated guys: unlock American energy, drill, frack, burn coal, embrace nuclear,” Ramaswamy argued.

All candidates similarly decried the alleged “weaponization” of the federal government — a top priority of Rep. Harriet Hageman (R-Wyo.)’s — promising to disempower Washington bureaucrats, shrink the government and curb regulations.

Ramaswamy, Burgum, Pence and DeSantis went so far as to suggest eliminating the Department of Education altogether, around which time Hageman noted online she’d signed onto a bill to do just that.

The one-sentence measure, introduced by Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), would terminate the department on Dec. 31, though it has virtually zero chance of becoming law.

Cleavages emerge on abortion, climate and Ukraine

Though the eight candidates on stage ostensibly represent the same political party, they differed widely on certain policy issues — as the GOP more broadly sees its messaging struggling with key constituencies.

Nowhere in the debate was this more present than during a segment on abortion. Noting that Republicans have seen loss after electoral loss in red and blue states when abortion rights were on the ballot, moderators asked whether and how the federal government should play a role determining in abortion policy.

Haley, the only woman on stage, took the position that abortion ought to be left up to the states: “When it comes to a federal ban, let’s be honest with the American people and say it will take 60 Senate votes, it will take a majority of the House, so in order to do that let’s find consensus.”

But Pence shot back: “Consensus is the opposite of leadership… a 15-week ban is an idea whose time has come.”

Scott sided with the former vice president, suggesting a federal 15-week ban should be the “minimum” in terms of federal proposals, while Burgum sided with Haley in suggesting states should handle the matter.

And once again DeSantis sought to dodge the question altogether, telling moderators only that “I’m gonna stand on the side of life.”

The candidates similarly sparred over climate change — an issue where Republicans again find their position at odds with majorities of Americans.

Asked for a simple showing of hands about whether they agreed with the overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity was impacting climate change, DeSantis again dodged. Haley responded by suggesting she’d pressure high-polluting nations like India and China to curb emissions, while Ramaswamy declared boldly that the “climate change agenda is a hoax.”

He then waded into a battering of insults with Christie — “a guy who sounds like chat GPT,” the former governor said of Ramaswamy; “help elect me just like you did Obama,” the entrepreneur retorted — prompting the first of Haley’s well-placed quips of the night.

“I think this is exactly why Margaret Thatcher said, ‘If you want something said ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.’”

Haley again went on offense when it came to foreign policy, pushing back strongly against Ramaswamy’s suggestion that the U.S. cease economic and military support to Ukraine amid the Russian invasion. Support for America’s investment in the war has been waning in recent months, fueled by GOP candidates — in Wyoming and elsewhere — who’ve pushed for a more isolationist approach.

Supporting Ramaswamy’s position of American neutrality was DeSantis, who argued Europe needed to step up and foot more of the bill. Haley pushed back by rightly noting many European countries have contributed a significantly greater portion of their gross domestic product than has the U.S.

Christie took the moment to attack Trump’s long-standing support of Russian President Vladimir Putin, suggesting that “if we don’t stand up against this type of autocratic killing in the world, we will be next.”

Meanwhile Trump, speaking with Carlson, echoed his past praise of the autocratic ruler, suggesting he “got along great” with Putin, President Xi Jinping of China and Supreme Leader of North Korea Kim Jong Un.

“They had great respect for our country,” Trump said of the leaders. “They respected me.”

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