Opinion | At the Republican Debate, an Infuriating Display of Moral Cowardice

By Frank Bruni

Mr. Bruni is a contributing Opinion writer who was on the staff of The Times for more than 25 years.

Ron DeSantis faulted Donald Trump for the Covid lockdowns during his presidency. Nikki Haley slammed him for runaway government spending. They did so early during the Republican presidential debate on Wednesday night and they did so readily, as if showing voters just how dauntless and independent they were. What guts!

What bunk. When they were later asked to raise their hands if they would support Trump as the 2024 Republican nominee even if he’d been convicted of a felony, up shot DeSantis’s arm. Haley’s, too. No hesitation. No equivocation. No concern about which of Trump’s 91 felony counts might be under discussion. No insistence that they’d have to see how strong the evidence turned out to be. Just fealty. It’s what the Republican electorate seems to insist on, so it’s what all eight candidates onstage in Milwaukee except Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson pledged.

The degrees of that fealty varied widely. On the wobbly end was Mike Pence, whose campaign arc has been the continued growth of a spine sorely missing during almost the entirety of the Trump administration. At the debate, that backbone had a big, thrilling, strangely poignant spurt.

Although Pence indicated the same perverse willingness as DeSantis and Haley to look past Trump’s possible rap sheet, he also delivered a soliloquy that didn’t just establish but exulted in his refusal on Jan. 6, 2021, to grant Trump’s request that he not certify Joe Biden’s election victory.

“He asked me to put him over the Constitution, and I chose the Constitution,” Pence said. “And I always will.” He sounded and looked grave and grandfatherly. And with that same voice, that same mien, he implored voters to think long and hard about electing anybody who would elevate political survival above all else. That was an instruction to turn away from Trump.

But the party is not turning away from Trump, and that was the moral of an event at which Trump was physically absent but spiritually present, an oppressive orange specter manifest in the bits and pieces of him that the candidates other than Christie and Hutchinson reassembled into their own political identities — and in their unwillingness to do what most needed doing and tell their party the full truth about Trump’s lies.

The Fox News moderators, to their great credit, didn’t actually focus on Trump until the second of the debate’s two hours, and even then they kept the back-and-forth about him relatively brief.

But that Trumpy interlude underscored the fundamental timidity and incoherence of candidates who are trying to beat Trump without beating up on him much, who are arguing that they’d make better nominees without using the most relevant and compelling ammunition against him. Their debate performances mingled moral cowardice with political malpractice to produce a baffling, exasperating, infuriating spectacle.

How can someone praise Pence for standing up to Trump on the day of the insurrection — an expression of admiration that implicitly acknowledges Trump’s treasonous ways — only to brush off the current prosecutions of the former president as a terrifying politicization of justice and deem Trump eligible to return to the White House? That was the oxymoronic and utterly moronic position of many of the candidates on the stage. In that sense, they were miniature Trumps, cracked mirrors of the master. They were putting their own political ambitions first.

Actually, Vivek Ramaswamy’s agitated, hyperbolic, comically exuberant turn traveled beyond pragmatic calculation into a whole different, more disturbing realm, that of Trump fanboy, Trump sycophant. I assume this was his audition to be Trump’s running mate?

He called Trump “the best president of the 21st century,” which put Trump ahead of only one other Republican commander in chief, but that wasn’t even his strangest and most slavish act of worship. No, he topped it when he proudly asked who among his bickering rivals had the “courage” — he really used that word — to promise that on Day 1 of their presidency, they’d pardon Trump of whatever might need pardoning.

They seemed to ignore him, at least then, though they swatted him down at other junctures. Rising in the polls and ripe for attack, he got schooled by Haley on foreign policy, by Pence on our country’s ability to tackle multiple challenges at once, by Christie on his lack of experience and unwarranted confidence.

All of 38 years old, Ramaswamy is like Trump in the larva stage, molting toward the full MAGA wingspan but not quite there yet. His narcissism, though, is fully evolved. On social media in the days leading up to the debate, he posted a video of himself in “three hours of solid debate prep.” It showed him playing tennis — shirtless. Call it an underdressed overshare, as well as an unsubtle reminder that a certain older, rounder, slower front-runner favors the more aerobically forgiving habitat of the golf course. I guess Ramaswamy does have a Trump dig or two in him, but they’re subliminal backhands.

On Wednesday night, Ramaswamy took his lickings and kept on ticking, muscling his callow way into as many topics of discussion as he could. And there were topics galore, as the moderators marched the candidates through abortion, Ukraine, education, immigration, government spending, climate change and more. That tour revealed Haley’s desire to be seen as somewhat moderate and less vain and rash than the men; Tim Scott’s rearing by a poor, single mother; and Christie’s ability to survive a tsunami of booing.

Doug Burgum and Asa Hutchinson occupied lecterns, too. But I’ve already forgotten them, and I suspect that other viewers and most voters will follow suit.

And Ron DeSantis? Did he invigorate his candidacy or invite its last rites?

He was loud, I’ll give him that. He smiled when a smile was in order, punched the air with his fist and trotted out that “stone cold dead” phrase that he has used before to describe the fate he’ll mete out to drug dealers who cross the country’s southwestern border.

But he had to be dragged to the statement that Pence did right on Jan. 6. He was mealy-mouthed on aid to Ukraine, suggesting he’d cut it off but then saying that his real concern was that Western European countries pony up more. (Gee, where have we heard that before?) He was blurry as often as he was bold, and that’s no way to catch up to Trump, let alone overtake him.

But is DeSantis really trying all that hard? Apart from Christie, are any of them? Like their ethically rotten party, they’re hostage to a serially indicted huckster and seem to be waiting for some twist of fate or act of magic to make it all better.

I share Ramaswamy’s hunger for real courage. But I define it differently than he does, and on Wednesday night, I was famished.

Frank Bruni is a professor of journalism and public policy at Duke University, the author of the book “The Beauty of Dusk” and a contributing Opinion writer. He writes a weekly email newsletter.  Instagram  @FrankBruni Facebook

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