As the Aug. 23 date for the first 2024 Republican presidential primary debate rapidly approaches, a question comes to mind: What’s the point? Between the dismal memories of the interminably dull and dragged-out 2020 Democrat circus and the likelihood that former President Donald Trump, the overwhelming leader in polling, might skip the whole affair, one is bound to wonder if primary debates even matter anymore.
The first point to emphasize is that these forums have always been about DC party officials seeking to exert control over the nomination process. This has become all the more evident with the rise of anti-establishment Republican Trump in 2015. That the Democratic National Committee (DNC) does not plan to host any debates for 2024 despite the public’s deep dissatisfaction with incumbent President Joe Biden and the rise of an authentic anti-establishment blue challenger is a testament to this core control function. It’s literally not up for discussion. The DNC would never consider granting Robert F. Kennedy Jr. a nationally televised platform to challenge its grip on what is and is not acceptable party orthodoxy.
On the red side of the aisle, the Republican National Committee (RNC) could not be more flagrant in seeking to tamp down the grassroots base’s enduring staunch support for perpetual outsider Trump. By demanding that candidates swear a loyalty oath to back the eventual nominee in order to be allowed on stage, an RNC that dearly hopes ways can be found to torpedo Trump also longs to obligate him to publicly support his chosen replacement.
Is This Must-See TV?
And so the GOP debates are already setting up to be another affair tilted against Trump, similar to the 2020 general election debates with Biden. However one stands on Trump, is this worth watching? How does having the hosts set up wannabe “pitbull” Chris Christie with meatballs so he can attack Trump and endlessly harp on “insurrection” and “criminal conviction” narratives in the questions they pose advance a meaningful exchange of thoughts on the ideological direction of the Republican Party?
On the other hand, there also is bound to be an attempt to marginalize Trump over the war in Ukraine, which could prove useful. Hawks such as Christie and, should he make the donor threshold, former Vice President Mike Pence will undoubtedly be leading the charge.
Unequivocal support for Ukraine and NATO at enormous taxpayer expense is a commandment for the Washington political establishment, and a healthy back-and-forth on the subject within Republican circles would be welcome. But how likely is that to occur? One only has to harken back to the fifth GOP debate in December 2015, in which a fulminating Christie vowed to shoot down Russian planes in Syria. The moment was meaningless, being entirely about posturing. With Christie basing his entire 2024 run as the tough guy willing to swing at “bully” Trump and Pence seeking to carve out a niche as the unapologetic champion of American strength abroad, the Ukraine conversation is destined to degenerate into soapbox gesticulation and nothing more.
Disastrous Debates Didn’t Slow Her Down
As tedious and repetitive as the 2020 Democrat primary debates were, they did manage to seemingly serve a valuable purpose that, again, only ended up highlighting the greater control apparatus involved. California Sen. Kamala Harris was the clear favorite of the establishment from the beginning, with the complicit big-box media playing their role. “Kamala Harris shines in commanding Democratic debate performance,” a CNN headline gushed after the second night of the first Democrat debate in June 2019. The article was even more cringeworthy.
“Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris on Thursday night established a commanding presence on her party’s debate stage – cutting through the cacophony of her rivals and insisting time and again that the candidates turn their attention to the troubles of ‘real Americans,’” CNN national political reporter Fredreka Schouten wrote.
Schouten linked to another CNN article by three more network political writers giving their “six takeaways from the Democratic debate’s second night.” The first sentence is all you need to know: “California Sen. Kamala Harris dominated the stage on the second night of Democrats’ first 2020 presidential debates.” A quick Internet search will confirm that CNN was far from the only dominant media outlet spinning this yarn.
The fix was indeed in. But Harris, in a pattern that has marked her entire political career, stumbled badly immediately upon being thrust into the spotlight. Startlingly weak performances in subsequent Democrat debates sent her campaign into a tailspin, and she was all but out of the race a little more than a month later. She officially dropped out in December.
This should point to the value of primary debates. An anointed favorite was tested and found sorely wanting. Yet look where she is today.
If totally wilting under the bright lights of the nationally televised party primary debate forum can mean so little in the formation of a party’s eventual presidential ticket, then how important can they be?
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