Wednesday night’s Republican presidential primary debate may have taken place in California, but its winner was in Michigan. In the hour before the debate, Republican front-runner Donald Trump was speaking to a crowd in Macomb County about the disastrous effects of President Biden’s social and economic policies. “We should not be forcing consumers to buy electric vehicles,” he told a roaring crowd of auto workers. “A few years ago, we were energy independent. Now we’re begging countries to give us gasoline.”
High gas prices, job automation, costly climate policies. These are the kinds of issues that are atop many voters’ minds, especially those Trump spoke to in Michigan in the wake of the United Auto Workers strike. And they’re certainly hot topics for a Republican to harp on: Only 36 percent of Americans surveyed approve of Biden’s handling of the economy. Trump also hit on other areas where the Biden administration is failing, like securing the US-Mexico border and promoting school choice.
But so did the seven Republicans onstage in California. So why did their jabs fall flat in comparison?
Trump’s primary challengers spent the majority of their two hours ducking the main fight — addressing the orange elephant (not) in the room. Until someone can articulate a path toward making a meaningful dent in Trump’s 42-point lead, the candidates will not be effective in gaining support through their competing policy visions.
It’s a frustrating reality because the conversations onstage were a glimpse at what a competitive Republican Party could look like. Between the occasional squabbles over curtains for the United Nations ambassador’s Manhattan residence or whether Vivek Ramaswamy should be TikToking with boxer and social media personality Jake Paul, the candidates fleshed out major Republican policies, including hitting hard on China, condemning the national debt, declaring the need for a secure border with Mexico, criticizing teachers unions, and attacking the failures of Bidenomics. Immigration, education, and, most of all, the economy, are the issues that will drive Americans, especially Republicans, to the ballot box, and the GOP candidates offered compelling policies for voters to consider.
But it’s difficult to take seriously policy plans that have a long shot at reaching the Oval Office as the candidates continue to vie for a distant second place.
There were some occasional jabs at the former president, but they were limp at best. Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida finally stopped playing the will-he-or-won’t-he on hitting Trump, saying that the former president was “missing in action.” But as Trump’s closest challenger, he’ll have to do more going forward. Ramaswamy professed his love for Trump and the America First agenda but branded himself as the more energetic standard-bearer of the movement. Former vice president Mike Pence said Trump “owes it to voters” to debate but muddied his message by leaning on achievements that occurred under the front-runner’s leadership. And of course, Chris Christie had his much-anticipated Trump-bashing moment. Staring straight into the camera, the former New Jersey governor castigated Trump for ducking out on the debate, coining the nickname “Donald Duck.”
Christie gets an A for effort, but the moniker fell flat, especially because the real ducking was done by the candidates themselves. Noticeably absent was any mention of Trump’s legal troubles, despite the electoral uncertainty they place on the party. That’s likely a calculated decision. Though not all Republicans support Trump, many still believe that at least some aspects of his indictments are politicized. But the political complications posed by the 91 charges will alienate the kind of moderate voters who can help turn an election. Perhaps it’s time for Kamikaze Chris to report for duty (that’s how you do the nickname thing, governor).
As the debate dragged on, the bickering between candidates grew tiresome. Ramaswamy became a sort of proxy punching bag for the former president. Policy wise, Ramaswamy was the closest thing to Trump on that stage, telling me recently in New Hampshire that his “policy agenda overlaps very heavily with that of Trump.”
And he certainly caught plenty of punches. After he defended his use of TikTok to reach younger voters, former US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley snapped, saying that she felt “dumber for what you say.” Other candidates piled on to the venture capitalist, probably as payback for his insult lobbing at the first debate.
In the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, the slogan slinging was especially trite in comparison to the Gipper’s famous one-liners. Even though Ramaswamy’s young-man-on-a-mission act is getting old, Haley’s comment didn’t quite zing like Ronald Reagan’s 1984 rip on Walter Mondale’s “youth and inexperience.” Going forward, Republicans would have a better chance at the White House if they spent less time throwing punches across the podium and more time making a persuasive case for why Trump is a losing candidate.
And there’s a good case to be made, even without delving into Trump’s legal troubles. Haley gets props for hitting Trump on China, saying that his economic pressure on Beijing wasn’t enough. “He didn’t focus on the fact that they were buying up our farmland. He didn’t focus on the fact that they were killing Americans. He didn’t focus on the fact that they were stealing $600 billion in intellectual property,” the former South Carolina governor said.
DeSantis also stood out for going after Trump on policy. “[Trump] should be here explaining his comments to try to say that pro-life protections are somehow a terrible thing. I want him to look into the eyes and tell people who’ve been fighting this fight for a long time,” he said. He performed much better than the first debate, focusing on his strong record in Florida and his landslide victory during the midterms, pointing out that the red wave materialized only in the Sunshine State. Trump’s endorsements, meanwhile, resulted in a loss across the board.
It’s a start, but it’s not enough. Until they deal head-on with the party’s orange albatross, Republican candidates will struggle to sell their agendas to the American people. Primary debates are about determining the best Republican to lead the party, not for second place.
Carine Hajjar is a Globe Opinion writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.