Republican candidates grapple with escaping the shadow of Trump
The candidates competing to clinch the Republican Party’s nominee for the 2024 presidential election faced the voters in the first debate of the primary season on Wednesday night. Former President Trump, who is significantly ahead in public opinion polls, did not participate in the debate, allowing the other candidates to vie for attention. Former Vice President Mike Pence and former UN Representative Nikki Haley delivered standout performances in the debate, where Trump’s influence was felt on almost every issue. Although these two candidates had served in the Trump administration, they refrained from directly criticizing the former president, even though they garnered applause from the audience, many of whom had paid to attend.
Discussion on Rising Crime Rates in Big Cities
In response to the question of how the candidates would address issues like the increasing crime rates in America’s major cities, their answers highlighted the classic “law and order” rhetoric. The candidates argued that the core problem lies in Democratic prosecutors who refuse to apply the laws to the crimes they ideologically do not believe in. They promised to remove such prosecutors from office when they become president, appealing to the concerns of the middle-class white demographic about crime rates. Republicans attribute the increase in crime, particularly in major cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, to Democratic mayors and local officials. However, their connection with urban voters, especially liberal Democrats, is weak due to the Republicans’ dominance, making this argument less effective.
Addressing Trump’s Legal Cases
The most heated discussions were sparked when the Fox TV moderator asked the candidates, referring to Trump’s ongoing legal cases, what they would do if the Republican Party nominated him despite being found guilty in those cases. While the candidates claimed they would respect the decision of the party’s voters, it was clear that they struggled with embracing Trump’s support. Chris Christie’s statement that Trump had engaged in behavior unbecoming of a president and that his previous remarks about suspending the constitution, even if not deemed guilty in court, were disqualifying, led to a chorus of boos from the audience. Mike Pence’s assertion that he upheld his constitutional duty over Trump’s political future by remaining loyal to his oath to protect the constitution during the January 6 events highlighted his attempt to differentiate himself from his former boss.
Many candidates praised Pence’s constitutional approach as correct, but Vivek Ramaswamy, who takes on a “mini-Trump” role, received substantial applause from the audience by stating that he would pardon Trump as soon as he became president. Ramaswamy’s overtly Trump-like statements, louder than even Trump’s, hinder candidates like DeSantis who are appealing to the Trump base. It was evident that Ramaswamy’s assertive stance in out-Trumping Trump was narrowing DeSantis’s space. The divisions among the candidates over how to approach former President Trump, coupled with the mixed responses from the audience—some of which could be interpreted as full support—underscored the difficulty the party faces in moving beyond its former leader.
In the midst of the discussion about providing aid to Ukraine, the debate between Russia and China, it’s hard to say that the approach of candidates like Pence, claiming that we can lead the world and solve our domestic issues at the same time, resonated strongly with the audience. Contrasted with Pence, who argues that even respected figures among traditional Republicans like Reagan approached global matters in this manner, the fact that the populist rhetoric of allocating aid to Ukraine for solving issues like immigration on the Mexican border received more applause reveals how much the party has changed. While Niki Haley attempted to leverage her foreign policy experience by stating that if we don’t support Ukraine, Putin’s next target will be a NATO country, and that the US defense line starts from Ukraine, she didn’t receive significant support from the audience on this matter.
The dominance of Trump’s “America First” rhetoric in the party is evident in its reluctance to embrace the idea of taking on a world leadership role in foreign policy. It’s clear that if the Republican Party’s nominee, who finds more popularity in saying, “I will send troops to our southern border, not Ukraine,” wins the election, the dynamics in Ukraine will also change. Throughout the debate, candidates had to contend with the specter of Trump in nearly every aspect of domestic and foreign policy. Trump’s popularity and control over the party were constantly felt in the audience’s reactions, in Ramaswamy’s statements, and in discussions about the Mexican border and Ukraine. Even relatively strong performances by candidates like Pence and Haley struggled to break Trump’s influence over the party, indicating that once again, Trump emerged as the winner of the night.