After weeks of speculation over who was going to participate, eight Republican candidates seeking their party’s presidential nomination appeared on stage together in Milwaukee on Aug. 23, 2023, for the first debate of the 2024 election season. Lest this sound like a normal event, it was not – the leading candidate, former President Donald Trump, who’s getting more than 50% in national primary polls, chose not to come. But that may have been a benefit to the debaters, who were able to spend their time talking about issues and not simply fighting off attacks by Trump.
The Conversation U.S. asked three experts – foreign policy scholar Jordan Tama from American University, Michigan State law professor Brian Kalt and Arizona State historian Calvin Schermerhorn – to watch, listen and analyze the debate. Here are their contributions:
Speaking about race in code
Calvin Schermerhorn, Arizona State University
At a time when the Republican Party is struggling to gain the support of minority voters, their first debate featured a chorus of dog whistling on issues of race.
In response to a question about rising urban crime rates, biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy whistled the loudest. He would put more cops on the streets who did not have to “look over their shoulder for getting sued,” a jab at Black Lives Matter and the broader push for police accountability.
Ramaswamy vowed to “end the teachers’ unions” and impose a civics test on 18- to 24-year-olds in order for them to vote, echoing Jim Crow literacy tests that were imposed on Black voters. “Reverse racism is racism,” he added in closing.
Not to be out-dog-whistled on the crime issue, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis accused liberal philanthropist George Soros of “funding radical left-wing district attorneys,” who, in this view, turn a blind eye to street crime at the urging of the 93-year-old Jewish billionaire.
DeSantis has partially built his brand on clamping down on school curricula around race and racism. On the stage he claimed to have “eliminated critical race theory” and “eliminated gender ideology” from Florida schools, declaring that “we need education in this country, not indoctrination in this country.”
Not to be outdone, former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley said, “There’s a lot of crazy woke things happening in schools.”
Haley, Ramaswamy and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina stood shoulder to shoulder with the five white men on stage, each claiming to have boot-strapped their way up. Yet, in this historically diverse field of Republican candidates, there was not a diversity of views regarding race.
Scott mentioned repeatedly that he was raised in a single-parent home and touted the Trump-Pence administration’s low unemployment rate for Black and Hispanic workers.
Yet Scott didn’t deviate from the conservative script that government aid hurts families and vowed to “break the backs of the teachers’ unions.”
Candidates spar over funding the Ukraine war
Jordan Tama, American University School of International Service
The debate moderators pivoted to foreign policy questions in the second half of the two-hour debate revealing an important divide within the Republican Party over the United States’ role in the world.
The candidates all agreed on the importance of countering China and securing the southern border with Mexico, but disagreed sharply over whether the U.S. should continue providing military and other kinds of support to Ukraine, now in its second year of war with Russia.
DeSantis said that he would make U.S. aid to Ukraine contingent on European countries providing more funding. Ramaswamy, meanwhile, countered that the U.S. should not prioritize the war in Ukraine, arguing that, “We have to put the interests of Americans first, secure our own border instead of someone else’s.”
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Pence and Haley then pounced on Ramaswamy, making the case for a more robust vision of American leadership on the world stage.
“Anybody who thinks we cannot solve the problems here in the U.S. and be the leader in the free world has a pretty small view of the greatest nation in the world. We can do both!” Pence said.
Haley also took Ramaswamy to task for suggesting that China, not Russia, represented the real threat to the U.S., expressing her belief there’s an important connection between the two countries. “A win for Russia is a win for China,” Haley said.
This quick exchange captured Republican politicians’ core differences on fundamental foreign policy issues. Will the Republican Party – and possibly, the U.S. – stand for international engagement, democracy and freedom? Or will Republicans adopt a narrower, inward-looking vision?
The first debate shows that this question remains on the table.
Pardoning Trump – and its limits
Brian Kalt, Michigan State University
As the debate’s discussion of Donald Trump wound down, Ramaswamy reiterated his pledge to pardon Trump if elected, and asked Pence if he would do the same. Pence responded by saying he would give due consideration to a pardon, but suggested that he would only do so if Trump was convicted and showed contrition.
Presidential pardons typically are, similar to what Pence described, given only to restore the civil rights of people who have been convicted, served their sentences and shown contrition. But presidents have the power, if they want to use it, to grant pardons to people who have shown no contrition at all. They occasionally do so.
Presidents also have the power to issue pardons preemptively, to people who have not been convicted or even charged yet. Thus a President Ramaswamy would be able to use his pardon power not only to reverse a Trump conviction but also to end any ongoing federal prosecution or investigation against him.
But it is important to remember that presidential pardons cannot reach state crimes. So a President Ramaswamy would not be able to completely end the prosecution of Trump, only the federal part of it; any state prosecution – such as those in New York and Georgia – could still go forward.