By Victor Shi
Last night, I had the misfortune of watching the first Republican Primary Presidential Debate – or what seemed more like the first Republican Primary Vice Presidential Debate. Except for Nikki Haley and Chris Christie, there was not a single candidate up on that debate stage who proved they are even remotely close to competent. It was a cesspool of lies, personal attacks, and chaos. As much as I wish I didn’t have to watch the debate, I did, and I have several takeaways that should raise alarm bells for anyone reading this.
No candidate up on that stage spoke to Generation Z – me and my peers. The most obvious example was when a young person appeared via video and asked a question to all the candidates about climate change. The moderators then asked each Republican candidate to raise their hand if they believe climate change is real. And what followed was unsurprising but jaw-dropping at the same time. Not a single candidate raised their hand. While Nikki Haley appeared uncomfortable to admit climate change is real, the other candidates either did not speak or called climate change a “hoax.” That moment was revealing, not only because they refused to admit climate change is real but also because they were handed the perfect opportunity to speak to Generation Z. They were given their best moment to address one of our top concerns, but they failed. And that’s precisely why my generation is so fed up and tired of this Republican Party.
Other than Chris Christie, no candidate has the courage or spine to confront Donald Trump head-on — which is a losing strategy. In 2016, one theme from the debates was that there were few people willing to confront Donald Trump directly. We know how that turned out, and we are seeing the same happen again. With Donald Trump leading in the polls by huge margins then and now, playing the “don’t go after Donald Trump card” will not work…again. Last night, except for Chris Christie, who offered a scathing rebuke of Donald Trump, there didn’t appear to be any candidate remotely near wounding Trump. In fact, when asked by the moderators who would support Trump if he becomes the Republican nominee, everyone but Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson raised their hands. That tells me — and should tell you — everything you need to know about how strong Trump’s grip on the party remains. No matter what happens, the majority of the Republicans last night – no matter how much they say Trump is unfit to serve again – will fall right back in line with Trump. That’s alarming.
My third takeaway is that the Republican electorate is fundamentally different from what we all think. Following the debate, CNN conducted a survey among those who watched the debate, and when asked who won the debate, the overwhelming number of participants answered Vivek Ramaswamy. To people like me and former Republicans, Vivek Ramaswamy represents everything Trump stands for — and worse. Last night, he repeated lie after lie, appeared sympathetic to autocratic dictators, and espoused neo-nazi rhetoric and ideology that should concern anyone who cares about democracy. But what many might view as disconcerting, the Trump base and Republican voters view as refreshing and needed. They see Vivek Ramaswamy as the heir to Donald Trump. They see Vivek Ramaswamy as the only person who can replace Donald Trump if there is anyone who could displace him. And that isn’t because of any particular policy; it’s because he was the most supportive of Donald Trump and the most extreme candidate on that debate stage last night.
The real winner of last night’s debate wasn’t anyone standing on the debate stage. It was Joe Biden. Against the backdrop of so much infighting and chaos, the no-drama, no-nonsense administration and presidency that Joe Biden is overseeing was a stark and welcome contrast. Watching, you couldn’t help but think about not only the sanity and empathy that Joe Biden brings to the presidency but also how far superior his accomplishments are as compared to the Republican field. While Republicans were off spouting nonsense and vague, hard-to-understand policies, President Biden has actually delivered on many of his promises. The contrast between President Biden and the Republicans running for president could not be more dramatic – and I’m confident most Americans watching the debate saw the clear difference.
With the first debate over, that means that 2024 is officially off to the races. If last night was any indication of what’s to come from Republicans, we all better be prepared for a bumpy, messy ride ahead. There’s going to be a lot of noise, a lot of chaos, a lot of fighting. But, we, as democracy defenders, must stay committed to what matters most in 2024: re-electing Joe Biden and Democrats and defeating MAGA extremism.