For a few gauzy moments on Wednesday night, the first Republican presidential-primary debate was a useful exercise in delusion. In the Fox producers’ carefully constructed world, the absent Donald Trump didn’t lead each candidate onstage by at least 30 points, nor was he driving the summer news by getting arrested every few weeks. No, the former president — the dominant fact of American politics for the past near decade — may as well have not existed.
It didn’t take long for this self-deception to suffer a series of mortal and obvious punctures, but those first minutes may have been the candidates’ best chance to present a vision for their ideal post-Trump GOP. What followed, though, told the story of the primary so far, as the candidates spent the rest of the two hours mostly dancing around the matter of Trump — with a few exceptions from Mike Pence and, at the corner of the stage, Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson — and instead continuing to pretend they could win a primary against him by sucking up to his voters and more or less hoping he’d go away. By the second commercial break, even the Democratic plans for monitoring the opposition were starting to feel slightly beside the point, at least in the short run.
Democrats spent the days leading up to the debate seeding an expectation that the debaters would endorse some sort of national abortion ban; defend Trump in the face of his four indictments, carrying 91 felony charges; and leap at the chance to destroy Social Security and Medicare. The idea has always been simple, but it’s been especially clear since last year’s midterms: Biden wins when his opposition party is exposed as unacceptably right wing, and Democrats plan to highlight this turn whenever they can. Biden has already started running against what he calls MAGA Republicans broadly, zeroing in on local right-wingers whenever he travels, seeing a chance to hit an entire movement without having to elevate its standard bearer. Former congressman Cedric Richmond, a senior adviser on the Democratic National Committee, argued to reporters before the debate, “This isn’t rocket science. To win a general election, you can’t support an agenda that the vast majority of Americans disagree with.”
On this, at least, the candidates predictably delivered by trying to outflank one another. Never was the dynamic clearer than when they were asked whether they would back a federal ban on abortion — the issue that’s driven surges of turnout against Republicans and anti-abortion causes for more than a year now ever since Roe was overturned. As Pence, in particular, spoke about his opposition to abortion and his inclination to back a 15-week national ban, Democrats running live focus groups with independent voters saw their attitudes drop precipitously.
Yet those around Joe Biden were also watching closely for new vectors of attack on the unpopular president, not just along the obvious economic lines but especially on pain points like his age and his son Hunter. Biden’s people have been invested in proving to the hand-wringing masses in the party that they wouldn’t sit back and let these matters define the race’s early stages; they recently announced that they’d spend $25 million on ads, mostly positive, through the fall.
The proceedings, however, featured no novel lines of attack on Hunter, and almost none of any substance on the fact that Biden was older than everyone onstage by about a decade at least. Meanwhile, one veteran Democrat who has spent years in the Biden orbit marveled to me that Fox kept broadcasting long stretches not just without any Trump mentions, but without the stage’s ostensible front-runner, too: “Ron keeps just disappearing.” Another top party strategist who’s close to the White House compared Ramaswamy’s insistence on grabbing not just airtime but the farthest-right position on every issue to Michele Bachmann, the tea-party-era congresswoman who’s remembered as much for her brief moment in the 2012-primary spotlight as for the aggressive eyerolls she earned from her competitors and, eventually, the electorate. The strategist predicted that while “there were moments that will be problematic for the GOP with voters,” the overall impression the debate was leaving was “that the inmates not only run the asylum now, but they’re opening every cell door.”
This, of course, is news to no one who’s been paying any attention, and certainly to no one who voluntarily tuned into a late-Wednesday-night debate on Fox at the end of summer knowing full well that the one person who defines American politics wouldn’t be there. (As the evening slunk into desultory sludge, Tucker Carlson was broadcasting his latest interview with Trump over on the remaining husk of Twitter; that sideshow’s viewers were rewarded with Trump’s unimpressed take on Biden’s beach body, his noncommital musings on whether Jeffrey Epstein committed suicide, and his disappointment at the water pressure in bathrooms these days.)
The overriding feeling among Democrats was that the real event has yet to begin. Even the liberal pre-debate spin about exposing the GOP as especially extreme sometimes felt half-hearted — because it was so obvious, because it’s hardly been useful in the past to deploy another candidate’s words as a cudgel against the sui generis Trump, and because of the unlikelihood that any undecided voters would be watching or even paying attention to electoral politics right now. The longtime resident of Biden’s circles pointed to the moment that Christie was drowned out in jeers for criticizing Trump’s criminality as the primary takeaway, a confirmation that nothing had changed about the race’s trajectory. From the Biden perspective, he said, “sanity getting booed has to give you hope you can put together your 2020 coalition again. Nothing here makes me think I’m doing anything different than running against Trump.”
At the very least, the Democrats could feel good about banking clips to roll out months from now as they make their broader case against an unhinged right, including in down-ballot races. Their private real-time focus groups showed independent-voter sentiment plummeting not just amid the abortion talk, but also when Ramaswamy yelled that climate change is “a hoax,” creating another scene almost certain to feature in liberal ads next year. The debate wasn’t even over when Biden’s campaign tweeted out a clip of Haley naming her rivals, including Trump, and blaming them for having “added $8 trillion to our debt, and our kids are never going to forgive us for this.” The president’s account simply commented, “What she said.” Less than two hours later, his team uploaded a compilation of Republicans appearing to raise their hands onstage when asked whether they’d support some sort of abortion ban, cuts to Social Security, climate change denial, and Trump.
Shortly before the debate started, I’d asked the strategist what his best-case scenario for the night would look like. His shrug was basically audible in his text: “They all reaffirm that the modern GOP is the party of cuckoo, wacko, and weirdo.” And the worst case, the one that would give Biden and company reason to sweat a bit? “They spend the whole time making common-sense sounding arguments about inflation.” For those few minutes early on, this at least seemed possible. But by the time the candidates were wrapping up their contortion act around the matter of Trump’s indictments — most of them trying to outdo the others’ defense of the former president before desperately spinning onto another topic entirely — this was clearly no longer a concern. I checked back in with the strategist and asked him to imagine for a second that he was Biden. What would he be thinking at this point? This time, I could practically hear him yawning: “Where’s that fly from Mike Pence’s head? He was entertaining.”
By then, it was already obvious that the night’s proceedings wouldn’t have much of a shelf life. If voters remembered one of the week’s headlines, it was almost certain to be generated about 18 hours later, when Trump was due to be booked at Fulton County Jail in Atlanta. This wouldn’t go down in history as the week a debate changed the trajectory of the Republican Party. It was mug-shot week.