early and often

Republican Debates Will Most Likely Just Benefit Trump

One of these two debaters in 2015 soon vanished from sight. It wasn’t Donald Trump. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

There is a fantasy that underlies the ever-growing 2024 Republican presidential field: Governor X or Senator Y or Outsider Entrepreneur Z gets into a televised debate and tears Donald Trump a new one, becoming an overnight sensation awash in new donors, volunteers for Iowa and New Hampshire, and adulation in the mainstream media.

It’s very unlikely to happen. Yes, once in a blue moon a presidential debate proves totally triumphant for one candidate and disastrous for another, but the kind of knockout punch that Elizabeth Warren dealt to Michael Bloomberg in 2020 requires not only an underdog with debating chops but an overdog with a glass jaw. If the 2015-2016 Republican debates are any indication, Trump’s jaw is as tough as tungsten. And his dominance of the GOP since his hostile takeover of the party in 2016 creates an almost unsolvable dilemma for anyone hoping to topple him during a debate.

The very first 2015 debate illustrated Trump’s ability to turn such events into a MAGA circus in which he is the ringmaster and his rivals come and go like tamed lions or clowns. His very presence swelled the debate audience into “the highest-rated presidential primary debate ever and among the most-viewed events in cable TV history,” as the New York Times noted at the time. “Donald J. Trump, the Republican candidate leading in the polls, drawing the most airtime and providing some of the night’s most memorable moments.” And his lead in the polls ballooned accordingly.

So long as Trump is the overwhelming front-runner in the 2024 nomination contest, there is inevitably a “Gulliver among the Lilliputians” atmosphere in the race, and in any encounter between the candidates. Trump’s popularity among the GOP rank-and-file, moreover (even among those who prefer other candidates), constrains any criticism from a debate podium. And his own lacerating style, with which debate viewers are thoroughly familiar, means that any rival who takes him on is likely to suffer direct, headline-grabbing ripostes from the 45th president. They’re inevitably going to be fighting him with an arm tied behind their backs and a chin exposed to a counter-punch. The safest approach, then, is for the other candidates to battle each other for a place in the ultimately reduced field and leave Trump in an unchallenged position until such time as he loses a caucus or a primary.

More fundamentally, though, RNC-sponsored debates offer Trump the opportunity to marginalize his opponents either by refusing to participate in one or more of them (as he did with a January 2016 Fox News debate after a dust-up with moderator Megyn Kelly), or by letting the RNC consign some of them to a secondary debate (like those in 2015) that will be mocked more than it is watched. The newly announced criteria for making the stage for the first sanctioned debate on August 23 (which will likely become more stringent for future debates) directly threaten some candidates with exclusion altogether. Politico suggests late entries like Doug Burgum will struggle to meet the required conditions, and better-known aspirants like Chris Christie, Asa Hutchinson, and even Mike Pence may be “on the bubble” for making it in.

All in all, those praying that Donald Trump’s won’t be the Republicans’ 2024 nominee should hope that the 2024 debates quickly cull the field and produce a few serious challengers (likely Ron DeSantis and one or two dark horses) with a chance to upset the front-runner once voters begin voting. Yes, it’s possible Trump could say or do something in a debate that would shock the Republican world into reassessing its affection for the ex-president. But it’s hard to imagine what that might be. I personally thought Trump was toast before the first 2015 debate when he defied one of America’s most sacred cows, the patriotism of POWs, by calling John McCain a “loser” who forfeited any claim to hero status by getting captured (and subsequently tortured) in Vietnam. It just made him stronger. It may be hard to understand, but it should no longer be doubted.

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Republican Debates Will Most Likely Just Benefit Trump