GOP Debaters Barely Even Tried to Take Down Trump


Republicans bickered their way through four debates.
Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

We now have four 2024 Republican presidential debates in the rearview mirror. Participation gradually diminished from eight candidates in the first debate on August 23 to four in the fourth debate on December 6. But Donald Trump skipped them all, giving his rivals a fine opportunity to seize ground from him with priceless media exposure.

How has that worked out for them? Well, Trump held 55.2 percent in the RealClearPolitics national polling averages on the day of the first debate, in Milwaukee. On the day of the fourth debate, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, he was at 61.3 percent. His lead over second-place candidate Ron DeSantis has swollen from 41 percent on August 23 to 48 percent on December 6.

You could say debates just don’t matter a lot to Republican voters, and there may be some truth to that. But the more obvious reason Trump has skated while saving himself a lot of debate prep time is that the actual debaters (with exceptions) have spent more time going after one another — not to mention their house-of-horrors conceptions of Joe Biden, the Democratic Party, and various culture-war hobgoblins — than after the overwhelming front-runner.

That’s not just a casual impression. Politico conducted an analysis of the transcripts of all four debates to see which rivals the candidates criticized (explicitly or implicitly). It wasn’t very close:

Donald Trump has gotten kid glove treatment from his Republican opponents throughout a crucial stretch of the primary season — and the numbers prove it.

A POLITICO analysis of the four GOP debates reveals a surprising pattern: With each debate, the candidates have been more and more inclined to go after each other instead of Trump, the far-and-away leader in the polls. The trend continued on Wednesday night, when only Chris Christie, the lowest-polling contender to make the debate stage, mounted sustained attacks on the former president.

According to Politico, debaters criticized Trump ten times in the first debate, nine times in the second, six times in the third, and nine times in the fourth. Attacks on each other rose from 16 in the first two debates to 26 in the third and 28 in the fourth. The dynamics are pretty clear: The candidates (with the exception of Chris Christie, who made it clear from the jump he was in the race to ensure Trump had a vocal critic in the field) are fighting for second place and either don’t want to offend the Trump-supporting majority of Republicans or assume he will implode down the road, presumably due to his many legal problems.

You could also argue that Vivek Ramaswamy is a departure from the norm: He never criticizes Trump and instead criticizes the other candidates for criticizing Trump, as Politico notes:

Ramaswamy, meanwhile, has been a regular defender of Trump across all four debates and has never gone after him. On Wednesday, he accused the other three candidates of “licking Donald Trump’s boots for years” only to engage in “Monday morning quarterbacking” now.

Aside from the quantity of Trump criticism, the quality of Trump criticism has varied in revealing ways. DeSantis has exclusively gone after the 45th president for being insufficiently conservative … one might even say for betraying the MAGA movement. He’s bashed him for lack of rigor on abortion policy, for going along with the experts (especially devil-figure Anthony Fauci) on handling the COVID-19 pandemic, and, most recently, for failing to get Mexico to pay for a southern border wall. Nikki Haley has criticized Trump for cooperating with Democrats in excessive federal spending and for doing too little to combat the influence of China. Both DeSantis and Haley have called Trump unelectable, though that criticism has subsided in the wake of a bevy of general-election trial heats showing Trump leading Biden.

Most notably, although DeSantis and Haley in the first debate allowed as how Mike Pence had done the right thing on January 6, neither of them has even once addressed Trump’s conduct before, during, or after that day as disqualifying. Both of them (along with Ramaswamy and departed candidates Pence and Tim Scott), moreover, pledged to back the former president as the GOP nominee even if he’s convicted of felony crimes.

For a while, many observers figured DeSantis and especially Haley were angling for the second spot on a ticket with Trump or a position high in his administration, but Trump’s own contemptuous treatment of all his 2024 opponents (except for his toady, Ramaswamy) has largely taken that off the table. So we are left with the impression that the surviving candidates still think Trump will somehow implode, or that they will be in a position to inherit the leadership of the GOP after he’s gone. Any way you look at it, they aren’t going to take him down on their own.

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