Voices: Why the GOP debates are increasingly meaningless without Trump

Voices: Why the GOP debates are increasingly meaningless without Trump

Wednesday night’s third Republican debate in Miami once again raised the question: Why are we doing this?

Five GOP candidates met in Florida for a well-rounded discussion of policy priorities, punctuated often by spicier moments when the candidates bickered with each other and, in the case of Vivek Ramaswamy, one of the moderators.

But there were actually two notable absences on the stage, the first and most obvious being Donald Trump. The twice-impeached former president, who’s is battling dozens of felony criminal charges, skipped another showdown with his rivals for the GOP nomination as his campaign continues to insist that the Republican primary is already decided. They point to months worth of polls showing Mr Trump slowly consolidating his massive lead over the competition, both in early contest states like Iowa and New Hampshire as well as among voters nationally.

The second absence, and one that received far less (but not zero) buzz this week, was that of Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin. Or more specifically, what he represents within the GOP: A champion for Republicans who want to leave Mr Trump behind, while keeping his unique set of voters engaged.

Long whispered about by centrist Republican donors and commentators as a possible late entry into the 2024 presidential race, Mr Youngkin finally put that speculation to bed this week after a bruising set of losses for his party and agenda in Virginia’s state legislature elections.

"My name is not on the ballot in New Hampshire. I have not been in Iowa, I am not in South Carolina, I am in Virginia," he said on Wednesday at a press conference.

“I’m here. I’m not going anywhere."

But the conversations around Mr Youngkin illustrate one real truth about the state of the Republican Party: The anti-Trump right remains desperate to topple his control of the GOP, yet unable to find anyone who can do so. Months of campaigning from the likes of Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, Chris Christie and Vivek Ramaswamy have failed to excite the Republican donor class just as they have failed to rally GOP voters who still back Mr Trump by a massive margin.

And Wednesday night’s debate did little to change that. Mr Trump was mentioned sporadically by both the moderators and candidates, but without the frontrunner present the criticism of his policies and record as president seemed less effective. The big attention-grabbing moment of the night had nothing to do with him; it played out when Mr Ramaswamy took a swipe at Ms Haley’s daughter over her TikTok usage, prompting the South Carolinian to label him “scum”.

Right now, it’s hard to say what, if anything, could move the needle in the GOP primary in any meaningful way. But it does seem clear that the debates are not going to do it, not as long as Mr Trump refuses to attend.

If Mr Trump’s rivals are serious about winning the nomination for themselves and not just auditioning for a vice presidential nod, Cabinet post or CNN contributor role, then a radical shift in strategy is needed. The attacks need to be sharper, their aim needs to improve. Most importantly, they need to remember that they are running against Donald Trump; everyone else is a distraction. And they need to find an avenue to speak to his most loyal supporters in a way that doesn’t just condescend to them, but provokes their respect.