KELLY: Hi. This is Kelly (ph) from Omaha, Neb. As a 46-year-old working mom, I'm going back to college to get my master's degree in political science and American government. I've picked out my back-to-school outfit, and I'm heading into my first class - constitutional law. This podcast was recorded at...
ASMA KHALID, HOST:
11:58 p.m. Eastern Time on Wednesday, August 23 of 2023.
KELLY: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but I'll be learning about We the People, will probably be writing a paper and will definitely be daydreaming about one day being friends with the NPR POLITICS crew. OK. Here's the show.
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DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Aw. Well, she's got a friend in us for sure. We're here. And how appropriate after this debate...
KHALID: That's true.
MONTANARO: ...Taking constitutional law.
KHALID: Well, hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.
MONTANARO: I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.
KHALID: And tonight, we are coming to you all very, very late because the first GOP presidential debate of the 2024 campaign season just wrapped up. And our colleagues Sarah McCammon and Franco Ordoñez were there in person in Milwaukee at the debate. Hey, guys. How are you holding up?
SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Hey there. We're good, right, Franco?
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Yeah, very good, very good.
KHALID: Energized for this late-night podcast episode. I'm really glad that you were able to join us. I hear a bit of hubbub behind you. I'm sure there's still a lot, it sounds like, going on behind you all.
MCCAMMON: We're in the press room, and if I can just sort of peel back the curtain a little bit...
KHALID: Oh, yes.
MCCAMMON: Franco and I were sitting right next to each other during the debate. And then in order to make this podcast work, we had to split up because, you know, feedback is a bad thing. So we just hauled Franco's stuff across the room. Hi, Franco.
ORDOÑEZ: Hey, Sarah.
MCCAMMON: We can't really see each other, but we're both in the same room.
ORDOÑEZ: We still - we both have good eyes on the spin room, though, where all the surrogates and some of the candidates have kind of come out and chatted a little bit.
KHALID: And try to spin, essentially, their narrative of what happened tonight.
MONTANARO: Just the sacrifices you guys make for radio.
KHALID: So just to recap, there were eight Republican presidential candidates on stage tonight. They were Doug Burgum, governor of North Dakota, Chris Christie, former governor of New Jersey, Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida, Nikki Haley, former governor of South Carolina, Asa Hutchinson, former governor of Arkansas, Mike Pence, the former vice president of the United States, Vivek Ramaswamy, an entrepreneur, and Tim Scott, Senator of South Carolina. Donald Trump, the frontrunner, sat this debate out. What did you all make of that decision?
ORDOÑEZ: It was a significant deal. I mean, as many people have said, as we've talked about on numerous shows leading up to this, it was kind of like the elephant in the room. It was kind of a shadow, you know, shadow that kind of cast over the debate. And his presence was felt right from the start, right from the introductions when there was booing against Asa Hutchinson and Chris Christie, the two biggest Trump critics on stage. And it just showed how much the crowd was behind Trump right from the start.
MCCAMMON: And, you know, the thing I've been hearing from Wisconsin Republicans, whether they are supportive of Trump or critical of him, which is a smaller number, is they thought he should have been here. They thought the voters wanted to hear from him. And they were disappointed that he didn't come. But nonetheless, he was a big topic tonight.
MONTANARO: He's probably not going to suffer politically from this. I mean, he is so far ahead, as, you know, Brett Baier, one of the moderators, had noted to Ron DeSantis in trying to tell him why this was an important thing to talk about in Donald Trump, given that he's 20, 30, 40 points ahead of...
KHALID: More even, yeah.
MONTANARO: ...DeSantis himself. So, you know, there's probably not a ton of political risk. But there were moments, flashes where I thought, huh, Trump might have wanted to have been on this stage to defend himself from a couple of these things and why he - there's probably a better chance he's at the next debate than at this one.
KHALID: OK. So let's talk more about that later. But I want to ask you about this moment. There was an explicit question about whether or not the candidates would back Trump if he was indeed the Republican nominee and was convicted, and all of them but Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson said they would. Here's Chris Christie during that debate that was broadcast on the Fox News Channel.
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CHRIS CHRISTIE: Donald Trump said it's OK to suspend the Constitution. Now, the oath you take is to preserve, protect and defend, not suspend. I will always stand up for our Constitution regardless of the political pressure.
KHALID: OK. So that is one sliver, I would say, of the debate. But really, there was a lot of sparring among the candidates. You heard Vivek Ramaswamy call for a pardon pledge. You heard some of the other candidates try to suggest that this ought to not be the issue that they are focusing on. And yet it feels like, how can they not talk about this issue?
MONTANARO: One of the biggest sort of takeaways for me, though, was it was almost like if you could imagine like a "Bill & Ted Excellent Adventure" (ph) sort of moment where they, you know, kind of wand you back in time or hypnotize you to think about like some other time when, you know, imagine a world in which Donald Trump decided not to run for president in 2024 and was just a former president. That's what we got in the first 50 minutes of this debate. And you had candidates debating the economy, climate change, although not really (laughter), you know, abortion rights. And it was a very odd situation. And then, of course, we're all brought back to reality with that hand-raising question.
KHALID: That being said, they only spent about 10 minutes talking about Donald Trump. And then they did move on to additional policy questions. You know, I do want to actually ask you all about one of the big policy debates that we saw on stage. I think the biggest difference that I noticed was on abortion. You heard some candidates calling for a federal ban on abortion, some saying that this is a state issue. And what I was struck by is when you heard Nikki Haley, the only woman on stage during this Fox News Channel debate, really kind of stake out a lane on her own.
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NIKKI HALEY: We need to stop demonizing this issue. 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. Now it's been put in the hands of the people. That's great. When it comes to a federal ban, let's be honest with the American people and say it will take 60 Senate votes. It will take a majority of the House. So in order to do that, let's find consensus.
MCCAMMON: Yeah. I thought that was really fascinating the way that she talked about justices not making these personal decisions. It almost sounded like the way abortion rights supporters talk about this issue - right? - keeping judges and politicians out of patients' and doctors' conversations. But she was saying, OK, the justices, you know, have overturned this decision. Now it goes back to the states. She hasn't exactly said leave it to the states forever. But she's been very cautious about talking about a national ban, which is something that, you know, first of all, Republicans don't have the votes for in the Senate, as she's acknowledged and she acknowledged on the debate stage.
She has repeatedly called for finding a national consensus. Of course, you know, what does that mean in a country where you have massive differences from state to state and region to region? You know, that's something that she said again and again, but it's not clear what that really means. Whereas you have candidates like former Vice President Mike Pence most notably strongly advocating that each candidate take a position in favor of a federal 15-week ban at minimum.
KHALID: What I was struck by is that, you know, Republicans, the more conservative positions on abortion have consistently lost in elections ever since the Dobbs decision came down. And what you heard tonight from Haley was a realistic assessment of what Republicans need in order to win in a general election, but she was kind of a lone voice in that regard. You did not hear a bunch of the other candidates on stage necessarily agree with this idea of finding a consensus opinion.
MONTANARO: I was just going to say she was kind of in the minority on her view when it comes to abortion rights, and that's because that idea of consensus certainly rubs a lot of conservatives, quote-unquote, "pro-life," anti-abortion rights conservatives the wrong way. You know, former Vice President Mike Pence said that consensus - seeking consensus is not leadership in his view. Obviously, he's pretty, you know, to the right when it comes to this issue. Of course, you have to keep in mind somebody like Pence, like Tim Scott, when they talk about that, when they put their religiosity kind of first, it really is sort of squarely aimed at Iowa because, you know, in the past, about 60% or so of the Republican caucus goers in the state are self-declared white evangelical Christians. So that kind of message really does resonate there.
Haley, though, wants to make the case that she's a stronger general election candidate. And when you talk to Democrats, they actually do think that. But she may have a very hard time still getting through to get a nomination, even though she sounded like someone who was serious on not just abortion rights, but also on Ukraine, when she took on Ramaswamy.
KHALID: So let's talk more about Ukraine. There was this moment during the debate on the Fox News Channel where Vivek Ramaswamy said that America had no business continuing its support for Ukraine.
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VIVEK RAMASWAMY: And I find it offensive that we have professional politicians on this stage that will make a pilgrimage to Kyiv, to their pope, Zelenskyy, without doing the same thing for people in Maui or the South Side of Chicago or Kensington. I think that we have to put the interests of Americans first.
KHALID: You know, most of the candidates did seem to take, I think, more of a traditional, you could say, Republican stance of peace through strength abroad, a sort of pre-Trump Republican traditional position. But Ramaswamy's position there was notable because of how vocally he was willing to just argue and defend his positions against, you know, how rare it sounded on the debate stage tonight.
ORDOÑEZ: It did sound very rare on the debate stage, but it is a very prevalent opinion among certain circles of the Republican Party, particularly House Republicans. This is a big, divisive issue in the Republican Party. I was actually kind of surprised that DeSantis didn't kind of back him up a little bit, considering earlier statements by DeSantis about this being a territorial conflict. He had also talked about this - about the war in Ukraine not being in U.S. interests in the past. When he did that, though, many of the more traditional Republicans, folks like Pence and and Haley with those similar views, did kind of attack him. So I was curious to see or interested to see that he was kind of more quiet about this. But it is one of the issues, and it's one of the few issues where there is a real divide in the thinking about the U.S. policy, particularly U.S. foreign policy.
MONTANARO: Well, DeSantis had to sort of back away from his original view of this because he was seen as the principal alternative to Trump. And these donors, college-educated whites, they really have more of a traditional GOP peace-through-strength stance than sort of DeSantis' pro-Trump instinct was. And I think to say that the majority of the people on the stage had that traditional GOP foreign policy stance sort of ignores the fact that the top three candidates in Trump, DeSantis and Ramaswamy each have been walking a line on Ukraine and not been as forceful as, say, a Pence or Christie or others.
MCCAMMON: And I think you heard that with DeSantis kind of trying to almost carve out a middle ground and say that, you know, Europe should contribute more and he would make more U.S aid contingent on Europe doing so. I thought this was one of the strongest moments for Pence. He sort of drew on his experience as a former vice president. He came out very forcefully with this kind of traditional position, the peace-through-strength position, and I thought he drew on his background as a former vice president and sort of put a stake in the ground on Ukraine.
KHALID: All right. We have a lot more to talk about, but we need to take a quick break first. Back in a moment.
And we're back. And, you know, there was this other rather notable moment of the night when Republican candidates were asked, I believe it was kind of the second big thematic topic of the night, about climate change and whether they believed in man-made climate change. They were asked to show kind of a raise of hands on this. I will say the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, protested over what he described as this schoolchildren question format. But to me, it was noteworthy that this was a topic that they were debating and that it's a topic that was given such a place of priority early on in the night. What did you guys think?
MONTANARO: Well, what struck me, No. 1, was they were talking about those deadly fires in Maui. And I kind of expected it to be sort of layup for the candidates to criticize Biden and the response, as a lot of House Republicans have been doing here in Washington. But instead, it did turn into this question about whether or not they thought that climate change was caused by humans, and none of the candidates would actually answer the question, really. Vivek Ramaswamy was very strongly against answering it in that way and instead said, climate - the climate change agenda is a hoax. He said that the anti-carbon agenda is the wet blanket on our economy and that - he claimed more people are dying of climate politics than of climate change. And that was just really striking because clearly that is not what that questioner was really trying to get at with that answer. And it really showed, again, that Republicans are just really not serious about policy when it comes to climate change, that really, their agenda has to do with deregulation and continuing to pump more and more oil and fossil fuels rather than pivoting toward a cleaner energy environment.
KHALID: OK. So a quick lightning round question for you all. You know, any time we do, I think, post-debate analysis, there's a question of who won the night. I'm not sure if anyone really clearly won the debate tonight. But who do you think stood out? Franco, let's start with you.
ORDOÑEZ: You know, I kind of thought Mike Pence stood out. I mean, I thought there was going to be a lot of interest and a lot of focus on Vivek Ramaswamy. And I think he did have his moments. But as kind of Sarah was talking about earlier, I thought Pence kind of, you know, spoke out very forcefully many times against him. Also, when you had all of the other candidates kind of backing him up on his actions on January 6, I thought he had a pretty good night.
KHALID: What about you, Sarah?
MCCAMMON: I thought that DeSantis' performance was notable for how not notable it was. I think he was, leading up to this debate, really hoping to set himself apart as the strong second choice. Hard to catch up with the gap with Trump, but he was hoping to to get closer. And it's hard to see how that will be the case after tonight's performance. There weren't a lot of sparkly moments for DeSantis.
KHALID: And to that point, you didn't really see a lot of the other folks on stage taking jabs at DeSantis, right?
KHALID: So it suggested they didn't see him as a huge threat. But what about you, Domenico?
MONTANARO: Well, you know, look. I think that, obviously, Ramaswamy looked like a person who was somehow the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, considering how much time he spoke and how many attacks that he took when normally that's a slot reserved for somebody who is actually ahead of everybody else. You're right that Ron DeSantis should have been that person, considering he's polling second. But his campaign has been sputtering so badly that the other candidates sort of ignored him. And I thought that Nikki Haley really stood out as somebody who looked serious, as a serious candidate who was aiming for the middle. And, you know, even though Mike Pence had that good moment on Ukraine, Nikki Haley really stole his thunder in saying that Ramaswamy was somebody who was standing on the side of a murderer, referring to Russia's president Vladimir Putin, rather than standing with Ukraine, a pro-American country.
KHALID: You know, I also thought Nikki Haley had some really effective moments throughout the night, whether that was on the issue of abortion or on Ukraine. But at the same time, Domenico, it almost felt like she was somebody I could see so easily winning the Republican nomination, you know, 12, 16 years ago.
KHALID: 2004 (laughter). Yeah.
KHALID: Right? And now you're like, has - is there a space for her at all within the Republican Party when the man at the head of the pack is still Donald Trump, the former president?
MONTANARO: She has some serious challenges because she doesn't have the money that other candidates have. She's not doing the same level of campaigning that other candidates are doing. She has to hope that this kind of performance does appeal to those folks who thought that DeSantis would be the alternative to Trump.
KHALID: So let's talk more about Donald Trump, the man who leads all of these candidates. He was not at all on stage tonight on the Fox News Channel participating in this debate, but he did do what amounted to some counterprogramming. He did this interview with Tucker Carlson, who, of course, used to be a part of Fox. And the interview was posted on the social media site known as X, also formerly known as Twitter. Franco, during the extent of his interview with Tucker, did he make it clear why he chose not to show up in Wisconsin tonight?
ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I mean, basically, he said he didn't want to prop up his rivals who he was so far ahead of.
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DONALD TRUMP: If you're leading by 50, 60, I have one poll I'm leading by 70 points, and I'm saying, why am I doing it? And I'm going to have eight people, 10 people who haven't made the debate - I don't know how many it is - but I'm going to have all these people screaming at me, shouting questions at me, all of which I love answering, I love doing, but it doesn't make sense to do them.
ORDOÑEZ: I mean, strategically, I understand the point. I will say that I haven't heard of any polls where he's ahead 70 points. I think on average it is about 50 points. But he also mentioned that part of this was a, you know, essentially a dig at Fox as well, who Trump said was - has not been very nice to him as of late. But, you know, Trump made a point to, you know, kind of take a lot of attacks at those on stage, particularly Asa Hutchinson and Chris Christie.
KHALID: So, Domenico, do you think this debate made the case that Trump ought to show up to the next one? I mean, did he lose anything tonight by not showing up?
MONTANARO: I mean, there's a small risk here in, you know, not being able to defend himself. I mean, when there was that moment where all of the candidates on stage, essentially, except for Vivek Ramaswamy, were saying that former Vice President Mike Pence did the right thing on January 6, you know, going against Trump, that would have gone very, very differently had Trump been on that stage. And I think that that, you know, says something about maybe where candidates think that they can go after Trump a little bit, but also, you know, a little bit of the risk that Trump takes in not showing up to a big event like this and why we may see him on a stage at another time so that he can really command it.
MCCAMMON: Trump loves the stage. He loves a crowd. And you have to wonder if he had a little bit of FOMO not being here, but there are going to be more debates. So we'll see.
ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I mean, I would agree with both of those sentiments. I mean, clearly, you know, folks here in Wisconsin wanted him to be here. Also, the crowd and the applause lines for anything supportive of Trump showed that they wanted him here. I do wonder, though, if whether the larger Republican electorate, whether they found that first hour of conversation about the policy issues that Republicans feel is important, if they felt that was refreshing at all, because up until now, the major parts of the conversation in the primaries has been about Trump's indictments. So it was, you know, new to be talking about these issues in a little more detail - or a lot more detail than we have over the last few months.
MONTANARO: I thought it was glaring, though, because if you saw all of those candidates on the stage and you were a Republican trying to make a decision, you got to look at this debate tonight and say, who is the person that I would pick as president if it wasn't Trump? There wasn't really somebody who really stood out as like the person who commanded the stage all night.
KHALID: All right. Well, we'll leave it there for tonight. Thank you all so much. We will be back in your feeds again late on Thursday, probably a little later than usual, just depending on the news. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.
ORDOÑEZ: I'm Franco Ordoñez. I'm in Milwaukee.
MCCAMMON: I'm Sarah McCammon, also in Milwaukee.
MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.
KHALID: And thank you all, as always, for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
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