The timing was propitious (the first presidential debate of the fall), the venue evocative (the library and museum honouring the Republicans’ last heroic figure), the stakes enormous (the lead that Donald Trump holds seems impenetrable), the competition brutal (not all the seven contenders on the debate floor will survive the next several weeks of the campaign). And in two hours of thrusts and parries, several questions were posed and a few of them actually answered:
What is the nature of the Republican Party that was on display Wednesday?
It was telling that entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy drew the distinction between the striking auto workers and union bosses. Former vice-president Mike Pence said that Joe Biden’s policies were “good for Beijing and bad for Detroit.”
These remarks and others from the candidates on the debate stage served to underline the appeals the new generation of Republicans now routinely make to the workers who once were the core of the Democratic coalition. And the emphasis on providing additional child-care assistance – Governor Doug Burgum of North Dakota called child care a form of “infrastructure” – was a clear example of Republicans aggressively moving onto Democratic turf.
Did the debate provide hints of what the Republicans will emphasize in the general election next fall?
Absolutely. Clearly immigration and the crisis at the southern border. Surely economic issues, especially inflation. Definitely the rise of China. Almost certainly the crisis of fentanyl. Undoubtedly parental rights in matters of education and in cases of gender transition.
Did the event change the broad, consequential narrative about the future of democracy and the character of the Republican Party as an outlaw vanguard?
The Democrats are primed to make this a 2024 emphasis. “Donald Trump and his MAGA Republicans are determined to destroy American democracy,” Mr. Biden, who is planning a speech on this theme, told Democratic donors recently. The seven candidates who qualified for the debate displayed a party with a far different style from that of Mr. Trump – suggesting that a campaign with a Republican nominee other than Mr. Trump would take these questions off the table.
What was the profile of Mr. Trump, who was with striking automobile workers in Detroit?
Not as formidable as the polls suggest, and surely not as Mr. Trump portrayed himself, in 2018, as a president who was “far greater than Ronald Reagan.” Former governor Chris Christie of New Jersey criticized the former president for refusing to appear on the debate stage, saying that he was afraid to confront his rivals – and then he issued a rhetorical guided missile, saying that Mr. Trump no longer should be regarded as Donald Trump but instead his competitors were “going to call you Donald Duck.” Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida twice said that “Donald Trump is missing in action.”
Mr. Trump’s strength and vulnerabilities have been unusually visible the past week. Governor Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, who hopes to play a role as a kingmaker in the state that holds the first primary, told an audience at the Texas Tribune Festival in Austin that “Trump is too dumb to be a danger to democracy. Let’s not give him that much credit.” Wednesday night’s debate came a day after a court ruled that Mr. Trump committed yet another fraud, this time by overvaluing his portfolio in a way that undercuts his identity as the Midas-touch Manhattan billionaire.
Did this debate at inflection point of the campaign change the trajectory of any of the putative rivals to Donald Trump?
It might have maintained the momentum of former governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina, whom Mr. Trump this week characterized as “Birdbrain.” It might have provided some oxygen to Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, whose rhetoric and optimism reflected that of Ronald Reagan, whose library and museum provided the setting of the debate.
Mr. DeSantis, whose campaign appears to be in free fall, seemed to fade into the background, literally and physically, until the second half of the session, when he seemed to rally; some of his language was inscrutable, particularly his repeated reference to “the CCP,” a shorthand that surely is unfamiliar to the American public but that apparently meant the Chinese Communist Party. And Mr. Ramaswamy emerged as, depending on voters’ perspectives, either a fresh new voice or an irritating pedantic.
What would Ronald Reagan think?
He would have admired the love of country that the candidates displayed. He would have approved of the repeated attacks on big government. He almost certainly would not have referred to Mr. Biden as a “hollowed out husk of a president we have,” which Mr. Ramaswamy did. And he would have been mystified about how the conservatism that he reshaped from 1967 (when he became governor of California) to 1989 (when he departed the White House) had been reshaped yet again.
Who was the audience?
Generally both parties have the allegiance of a quarter of the electorate, with about half the country considering themselves Independents. We know how each quarter of the country will vote. It’s the Independents, if they watched, who matter. What they saw was a set of candidates who were different from Mr. Trump but surely affected by the former president. And they saw a Republican Party that in 2024 wouldn’t nominate Ronald Reagan for president.