If you watched the second Republican primary debate with closed captioning, you might have concluded that the leading candidate was “Crosstalk.”
Wednesday night’s gathering at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library was less a debate than a cacophony in which the seven candidates each said worthwhile things but often struggled to be heard.
This is symbolic of a field that has largely failed to distinguish itself from former President Donald Trump, the overwhelming front-runner, and one another. The debate was a Tower of Babel overlooking Reagan’s shining city on a hill.
Instead, a collection of candidates who are mostly in the single digits traded insults and took carefully scripted shots at the former president, who was campaigning in the battleground state of Michigan rather than joining them.
If Trump was supposed to build the wall, his primary challengers are building a wall of sound, and their campaigns are paying for it.
Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy reprised his role as the villain on the stage, clearly disliked by most of the other six candidates, who rejected his call to come together after calling them sellouts in the last encounter. But like many of the attacks on candidates not named Trump, the barbs seemed arbitrary and driven by personal animus rather than any clear strategy. The same was true of the late-period South Carolina squabbling between former United Ambassador Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC).
In Scott’s case, perhaps there was some upside to showing he could throw a punch after a sleepy first debate. Ramaswamy also offers the opportunity to assail some of Trump’s policy positions by proxy, since he is a fellow populist. Ramaswamy is mainly a young upstart whose glibness gets under their skin, however.
One exception was Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) calling out Trump’s criticisms of six-week abortion bans as “terrible.” That was a real opening for the other candidates in the race, especially in Iowa, and an important policy debate inside the GOP.
How Republicans are going to legislate on abortion since the reversal of Roe v. Wade should be one of the biggest issues in the primary. It surely will be in the general election.
Yet DeSantis’s defense of the anti-abortion movement against Trump’s assertions about the midterm elections and “terrible” laws was fleeting. This was the Florida governor’s main problem in the debate. His answers were strong, and he interjected occasionally. But he mostly faded into the background unless asked a direct question, and he seemed content to do so.
DeSantis may be the front-runner on that stage, though his recent drop to third place in the RealClearPolitics average for New Hampshire suggests he should not take that status for granted. He is, in fact, trailing Trump by 30 to 40 percentage points nationally and in the early states.
Appearing above the fray among the also-rans is less important than altering the trajectory of the race.
The direct appeals from multiple candidates to Trump to participate in the debates were only partly about his civic obligation. Trump does owe it to Republican voters to answer the same questions as the other candidates and risks shortchanging or insulting them by staying away.
At the same time, Trump is the only GOP candidate to have already served as president. Polls show Republican voters want Trump to debate, but they even more consistently find him in first place, which may be the better indication of how important the debates are to them.
And the other candidates’ attempts to bait Trump are clearly as much about their own needs.
Trump’s presence on the stage gives the rest of the field opportunities and validation the former president simply does not want to give them.
Perhaps by looking ahead to the general election, by focusing on blue-collar voters in Michigan and suburbanites made jittery by GOP abortion talk, Trump is making a mistake in the primaries.
There’s a strong logical argument for this position. The evidence from the polls and the attempts of the other candidates to capitalize on Trump’s missteps don’t support it very well.
The best hope for the non-Trump candidates is that as the field shrinks, there will be less noise and more opportunities for breakout moments in future debates. This would also potentially give a Trump alternative a cleaner shot at the former president in the crucial early states.
If the debates continue to produce modest bumps for several candidates simultaneously and offer no stronger rationale for Trump to attend than to avoid being called “Donald Duck,” crosstalk will prevail.