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The Elephant Not in the Room
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The Elephant Not in the Room

Wednesday’s GOP presidential primary debate was full of fireworks, but will it matter?

Happy Thursday! If anyone reading this has a spare ulnar collateral ligament, please ship it to the Los Angeles Angels ASAP. Shohei Ohtani—and those of us who enjoy watching Shohei Ohtani play baseball—could really use it.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • India became the first country to land a spacecraft on the south pole of the moon on Wednesday, beating several other countries in a race to accomplish the tricky feat. Japan failed to land its rover in the dangerous area in April and, over the weekend, Russia crashed its rocket—launched earlier this month—into the moon. India is only the fourth country to successfully reach the moon, joining the U.S., Russia, and China. The lunar probe will now conduct experiments and search for water, which scientists believe exists on the moon’s surface on the crater-filled south pole. 
  • Russian mercenary Yevgeny Prigozhin is presumed dead after a business jet crashed halfway between Moscow and St. Petersburg yesterday. Russian aviation authorities claimed he was aboard, and Prigozhin was listed on the plane’s manifest. Russian state media reported all 10 passengers aboard died in the crash, which does not yet have a confirmed cause. Two months ago, Prigozhin and his Wagner group forces launched a mutiny aimed at ousting high-level Russian defense officials. Meanwhile, a Prigozhin-linked general, Sergei Surovikin, was replaced as head of the air force Wednesday, after allegedly being held under arrest following the mutiny. 
  • Russia claims to have shot down three Ukrainian drones on the sixth day of attacks on Moscow and the capital region. Meanwhile, three people were reportedly killed after a Ukrainian drone attack in the Belgorod region of Russia, just across the border from Ukraine. A U.S. State Department spokesperson said it does not encourage attacks on Russian territory, but Kyiv may decide how to defend itself against Russia’s invasion.
  • The Department of Justice announced the results of a nationwide crackdown on fraud in pandemic aid programs, detailing 718 law enforcement actions that have been brought against 371 defendants over the alleged theft of $836 million. The Justice Department also announced the creation of two additional COVID-19 fraud “strike forces” to combat fraud in pandemic aid programs. Attorney General Merrick Garland created a pandemic fraud task force in May 2021, and federal prosecutors have filed charges or launched investigations into approximately $8.6 billion in alleged fraud since the beginning of the pandemic.
  • House Speaker Kevin McCarthy signaled Tuesday that the House could pursue an impeachment inquiry into President Biden as early as next month if the administration doesn’t provide access to records GOP lawmakers are seeking concerning potential ties between the president and Hunter Biden’s business dealings. “If they provide us the documents, there wouldn’t be a need for an impeachment inquiry,” McCarthy told Fox Business yesterday. “But if they withhold the documents and fight like they have now to not provide to the American public what they deserve to know, we will move forward with impeachment inquiry when we come back into session.”
  • Several more defendants in Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis’ case prosecuting alleged attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election surrendered to authorities on Wednesday, including Rudy Giuliani, Jenna Ellis, and Sidney Powell. Giuliani’s bond was set at $150,000, while both Ellis and Powell agreed to bonds of $100,000 apiece. Former President Donald Trump is set to surrender today.
  • James Jones—a former EPA administrator—will serve as the Food and Drug Administration’s first Deputy Commissioner for Human Foods. The new position will oversee all the agency’s food programs and policies including those regarding safety and nutrition. Jones’ hiring comes after the FDA faced scrutiny over its handling of the baby formula shortage in early 2022. 
  • In a 4-1 decision on Wednesday, South Carolina’s Supreme Court upheld a ban on abortion after a heartbeat can be detected, usually around six weeks of gestation. The ruling reversed a previous decision in January on a similar bill limiting abortion access. Writing for the majority, Justice John Kittredge said the law does infringe on “a woman’s right of privacy and bodily autonomy,” but that the legislature balanced that with “the interest of the unborn child to live.” The new law—replacing a law that previously allowed abortion before 22 weeks of gestation—goes into effect immediately.

The Race for Second Place is On

Republican presidential candidates at the first GOP presidential primary debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on Wednesday, August 23, 2023. From left to right: Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott, and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum. (Photo by Joshua Lott/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidates at the first GOP presidential primary debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on Wednesday, August 23, 2023. From left to right: Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott, and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum. (Photo by Joshua Lott/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The most important—and revealing—moment of last night’s GOP primary debate in Milwaukee came one hour in, just before 10 p.m. ET, when co-host Bret Baier finally got around to asking the eight candidates on the stage about the “elephant not in the room.”

“If former President Trump is convicted in a court of law, would you still support him as your party’s choice?” he said. “Raise your hand if you would.”

Vivek Ramaswamy’s arm immediately shot in the air, followed by former Gov. Nikki Haley’s and Sen. Tim Scott’s. Doug Burgum—the governor of North Dakota whose attendance was in jeopardy after he ruptured his Achilles tendon playing basketball a day earlier—took a deep breath and half-heartedly brought his hand up to his shoulder. Only once the audience erupted in cheers for their competitors did Gov. Ron DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence—Trump’s onetime running mate—glance to their left and sheepishly do the same.

After an opening hour that touched on abortion, economic opportunity, environmental regulations, and urban decay, the question from Baier served as a stark reminder to the candidates that, barring a significant change in the trajectory of the race, they’re all competing with one another for second place. Nothing that happened at the Fiserv Forum last night did anything to change that.

Sure, a couple of candidates took some shots at the frontrunner, who is currently leading his closest competitor by more than 40 percentage points in national polls. Haley dogged him for overseeing the addition of trillions of dollars to the national debt. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie reminded viewers that, in December, Trump had called for the “termination” of the Constitution and his reinstallation in office. Pence argued the former president had asked him to violate his oath of office on January 6, 2021—a point with which most of the candidates on the stage agreed.

The far-and-away frontrunner famously skipped the debate, opting instead for a 46-minute, pre-taped interview with Tucker Carlson released on X as counterprogramming. “You see the polls have come out, I’m leading by 50 and 60 points,” Trump told Carlson, explaining his absence from the stage. “And some of them are at one and zero and two. And I’m saying, ‘Do I sit there for an hour or two hours, whatever it’s going to be, and get harassed by people that shouldn’t even be running for president? Should I be doing that? And a network that isn’t particularly friendly, frankly.” 

Carlson queried Trump on a number of issues, including Jeffrey Epstein’s death, whether Trump thinks he’ll be assassinated, and the chances of civil war in the U.S. But the former president did have a few comments about his challengers on the debate stage, calling DeSantis “donezo” and Christie “a savage maniac” and “a lunatic.”

Some of those challengers would’ve loved to return the favor. But with Trump back home at Bedminster, no one was going to land a knockout punch—and no one really tried. Instead, candidates seemed content to focus their fire on the newcomer who has been “surging” in recent weeks—to 7 percent in national polls. “I’ve had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT standing up here,” Christie said, pointing to a grinning Ramaswamy. “The last person in one of these debates, Bret, who stood in the middle of the stage and said, ‘What’s a skinny guy with an odd last name doing up here?’ was Barack Obama. And I’m afraid we’re dealing with the same type of amateur.”

Ramaswamy, a 38-year-old who’s been a Fox News mainstay for the past several years, made his presence felt early on Wednesday, offering up a simple, bumper-sticker-sized solution to seemingly every problem with which he was presented. “Yeah, this isn’t that complicated guys,” he interjected during a discussion of lagging economic growth. “Unlock American energy. Drill. Frack. Burn coal. Embrace nuclear.”

“I’m the only person on the stage who isn’t bought and paid for, so I can say this,” Ramaswamy continued. “The climate change agenda is a hoax.”

The latter part of that sentence didn’t raise too many hackles on the stage (though Ron DeSantis’ super PAC quickly pointed out that Ramaswamy had not long ago said “climate change is real”), but the first half certainly did, leading several candidates to go after the biotech entrepreneur. Pence, for example, pegged Ramaswamy as a rookie who’d need “on-the-job training” as president. And even more knives were out for him during the national security portion of the debate. “Under your watch, you will make America less safe,” Haley said, earning applause from the audience as she referenced Ramaswamy’s steadfast opposition to U.S. aid for both Israel and Ukraine. “You have no foreign policy experience and it shows.”

On all but a few issues, the distinctions between the candidates on stage were relatively minor—differences of degree rather than differences of kind. Aid to Ukraine proved to be an exception.

The segment began with another ill-fated “hand-raise” question: “Is there anyone on stage who would not support the increase of more funding to Ukraine?” Once again, Ramaswamy’s hand shot up like a precocious elementary-schooler. And once again, DeSantis weighed his answer carefully: “Europe needs to step up,” he said with a qualified, cautious hand wave. 

Ramaswamy—the most staunchly isolationist candidate on the stage—took the opportunity to lay into Pence and Christie, both of whom have visited Ukraine during the campaign. “I find it offensive that we have professional politicians on this stage who will make a pilgrimage to Kyiv—to their pope, Zelensky—without doing the same thing for the people in Maui, or the South Side of Chicago, or Kensington,” he said to a mixed reaction in the room. “I think that we have to put the interests of Americans first and secure our own border instead of somebody else’s.” Support for Ukraine, he argued, is only driving Russia and China closer together.

The comments enraged Christie, Pence, and Haley, who forged a tripartite alliance to immediately jump down Ramaswamy’s throat. Christie recounted stories of Russian atrocities shared with him in Ukraine, arguing, “If we don’t stand up to this type of autocratic killing in the world, we will be next.” Pence, as he did several times during the evening, invoked Ronald Reagan, saying America “achieves peace through strength.” He also laid into Russian President Vladimir Putin—calling him a “dictator and a murderer”—as Ramaswamy grinned and tried to interject with a “news flash” about the Soviet Union being dissolved more than 30 years ago.

Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, swatted down Ramaswamy’s claim that helping Ukraine boosts the Russia-China relationship, continuing to hit him on foreign policy. “A win for Russia is a win for China,” she said. “Ukraine is the first line of defense for us. The problem that Vivek doesn’t understand is he wants to hand Ukraine to Russia; he wants to let China eat Taiwan; he wants to stop funding Israel—you don’t do that to friends.” 

With Pence off-camera helpfully adding, “right,” and “yes,” Haley went in for the kill: “Putin has said once Russia takes Ukraine, Poland and the Baltics are next—that’s World War Three,” she said. “We’re trying to prevent war.”

The Vivek-bashing continued well into the night, with Pence and DeSantis surrogates arguing in the post-debate spin room that the biotech entrepreneur’s performance will diminish him in the eyes of voters. “It’s very clear that Vivek would need training wheels if he were to be president,” Devin O’Malley—a Pence spokesman—tells Dispatch Politics. “[On foreign policy], Vivek is wrong over and over again.”

But Ramaswamy certainly made a name for himself—a campaign advisor later boasted that seven “career politicians” went after him and “couldn’t knock him down”—and his efforts to tap into the Republican Party’s populist strain didn’t go unnoticed. “Vivek landed some great shots, and he made some incredible points,” Donald Trump Jr. told reporters, doing nothing to assuage concerns Ramaswamy is in the race as a stalking horse to take out Trump’s rivals. “Vivek performed the best.”

In addition to the Ukrainian war effort, the Supreme Court’s 2022 Dobbs decision received a lot of attention—and exposed a similar rift between the candidates. Would you support a federal ban on abortion? Six candidates answered—Ramaswamy and Christie didn’t get the question and didn’t try to force their way into the discussion—and their responses were quite different from one another. 

Some—mainly Pence and Scott—highlighted what they believe is their moral duty to protect life, while Burgum and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson approached the issue with questions about federalism in mind: Hutchinson argued the federal government can have a role in shaping abortion policy, while Burgum—brandishing a pocket Constitution—said it’s an issue for the states alone. Haley tried to thread the needle, setting up a sharp contrast with Pence. 

Haley, the first candidate to respond to the question, made a play for moderates on the abortion question, building out the “consensus” position she first attempted to articulate early in the campaign. “We need to stop demonizing this issue,” she said. “This is talking about the fact that unelected justices didn’t need to decide something this personal, because it’s personal for every woman and man.” 

Instead of pledging to sign any specific legislation into law, she staked out an incrementalist approach, arguing that the slim likelihood of getting a federal ban of any kind through Congress meant pro-life leaders should try to make progress in places where people broadly agree. For her, those areas include restrictions on late-term abortions, encouraging adoption, protecting healthcare professionals who won’t perform abortions, making contraception broadly available, and not punishing women who seek out an abortion.

Haley’s stance rankled Pence, who spent much of the evening highlighting his conservative evangelical bona fides—particularly on the issue of life. “I’m not new to this cause,” he said, quoting scripture to make the pro-life case. “Nikki, you’re my friend, but consensus is the opposite of leadership. When the Supreme Court returned this question to the American people, they didn’t just send it to the states only. It’s not a ‘states only’ issue—it’s a moral issue.” 

DeSantis, for his part, sought to sidestep the issue, touting the six-week ban he signed into law in Florida but refusing to answer whether he’d pursue similar legislation at the federal level. “I will stand on the side of life,” he said. “I understand Wisconsin will do it different than Texas. I understand Iowa and New Hampshire will do it different. But I will support the cause of life as governor and as president.”

Although DeSantis was standing center stage last night as the leading challenger to the former president, he was far from the center of attention. He spoke for slightly more than 10 minutes total—good for fourth among the candidates—and his rivals largely ignored him, more readily sparring with Ramaswamy. For long stretches of the evening, you could be forgiven for thinking DeSantis was a fringe candidate.

As expected, DeSantis leaned on his record in Florida, citing his COVID-era decisions to end lockdowns and reopen schools earlier than pretty much any other governor. He also knocked Trump’s deference to public health officials during that period. “You don’t take somebody like [Dr. Anthony] Fauci and coddle him,” he said in a Celebrity Apprentice-style quip. “You bring Fauci in, you sit him down, and you say, ‘Anthony, you are fired!’”

DeSantis’ efforts to remain above the fray—avoiding spats, focusing on Joe Biden, paving very little new ground on policy—were consistent with his campaign’s strategy of trying to run as the frontrunner without driving much of a contrast with the real frontrunner by more than 40 points. The result was a relatively quiet night in which he neither gained much new ground nor lost steam. “Thought DeSantis was fine,” veteran GOP strategist Rob Stutzman tells TMD. “But [he] didn’t do anything to change his campaign narrative.”

Worth Your Time

  • An “abundance agenda”—cutting supply-side restrictions and red tape to create more of everything from health care to housing—sounds like it should be an easy sell. But in her latest column for the Washington Post, Megan McArdle explores why making progress on such policies is so tricky. “Why is the abundance agenda proving such a hard sell?” McArdle asks. “One answer might have to do with loss aversion; we care more about losing what we already have than about achieving potentially offsetting gains. While often categorized as irrational, this bias has a certain logic, because the gains are speculative and hard to visualize, while it’s easy to see what we have. Another answer is that some avenues of progress look scary: What might artificial intelligence do to us? What might we do to ourselves via genetic engineering?” But such thinking assumes that maintaining the status quo is sustainable or even desirable. “It might be tempting to argue that people can still manage selected areas of progress without committing to broad growth, but in practice, this is hard to manage,” McArdle writes. “In stagnant economies, investments in medical research are locked into zero-sum competition with current consumption. A quick look at Americans’ savings rate and the government’s finances suggests that future-oriented investment will not win the contest. If so, the real loser will be humanity, forever deprived of the better things that might have been.”

Presented Without Comment

Daily Beast: Fox Seriously Centered First Question of GOP Debate Around Viral Song [“Rich Men North of Richmond”]

Also Presented Without Comment

Rudy Giuliani to CNN before surrendering to authorities in Fulton County: “I’m feeling very, very good about it because I feel like I am defending the rights of all Americans, as I did so many times as a United States attorney.”

Also Also Presented Without Comment

The Wall Street Journal: CDC Warns Against Kissing Pet Turtles in Response to Salmonella Outbreak

Toeing the Company Line

  • In the newsletters: The Dispatch Politics crew files from Milwaukee to take RNC members’ temperatures on Trump’s absence and reveal the candidates’ game day rituals, Scott writes (🔒) in defense of the big retail and restaurant chains that enable diverse interactions across America’s class divide, Nick explains (🔒) the high (and low) stakes of the GOP primary debate, and Jonah weighs in (🔒) on whether the 14th Amendment bars Trump from running for office.
  • On the podcasts: Sarah and David dig into a legal potpourri—including a legal consensus on gender transition procedures, the Fifth Circuit’s abortion pill case, and more—and Robert P. George joins Jonah on The Remnant to discuss America’s fraying civic bonds and engage in some rank punditry.
  • On the site today: Harvest breaks down the legal battle between Texas and the DOJ over the floating barriers in the Rio Grande and Kevin offers his two cents on whether the 14th Amendment disqualifies Trump from holding office.

Let Us Know

Did anything that played out on the debate stage last night surprise you? Do you think it changed the trajectory of the GOP primary at all?

Mary Trimble is the editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, she interned at The Dispatch, in the political archives at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and at Voice of America, where she produced content for their French-language service to Africa. When not helping write The Morning Dispatch, she is probably watching classic movies, going on weekend road trips, or enjoying live music with friends.

Grayson Logue is the deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in political risk consulting, helping advise Fortune 50 companies. He was also an assistant editor at Providence Magazine and is a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a Master’s degree in history. When Grayson is not helping write The Morning Dispatch, he is probably working hard to reduce the number of balls he loses on the golf course.