MILWAUKEE – Tomorrow night, for the first time, the Republican presidential candidates who aren’t Donald Trump will get a stage to themselves. No “proud deplorables” drowning out their applause lines. No giddy speculation about what nicknames he’ll hurl their way.
That’ll give Fox News hosts Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum two hours with nine candidates who did accept the invitation, and whose own messaging and policy promises routinely get buried by Trump. Viewers who haven’t heard from these candidates might be surprised by how much they agree with each other — on immigration, on fiscal policy, on social issues, and on Trump’s legacy as president.
Democrats responded to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 defeat by moving left on key issues; each candidate committed to reversing as much of the Trump legacy as possible, expanding the Affordable Care Act, Republicans battling to follow Trump have started where he left off, and stepped to the right.
The overwhelming, oxygen-draining focus on Trump’s indictments can obscure just how warmly the GOP field views his presidency. That wasn’t inevitable. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu flirted with a campaign that would have challenged Trump from the center-right; so did ex-Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who’s hinting that he might run on field with the No Labels flag.
But the consensus from the field we have is that Trump had a phenomenally successful presidency, right on almost every policy, undone only by his own personality and poor decisions.
Immigration. Every candidate onstage supports military action against drug cartels in Mexico, going further than Trump did in office. Every candidate wants to complete a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, an idea that divided the party in 2016 – and again in 2019, when 12 Republican senators voted against the emergency declaration that Trump used to fund wall construction. (Just eight of those senators are still in D.C.)
Two of the Milwaukee Republicans once opposed the wall, but have evolved to support it. Chris Christie derided the way Trump promised to build a “marvelous wall” that Mexico would pay for. Two months ago, he said at a CNN town hall that he’d changed his mind: “We’ve spent this money on building some of it, you might as well finish it now.”
Nikki Haley moved in the same direction. In 2015, when she was urging the party not to nominate Trump, Haley said that it was unrealistic for a Republican to “commit to putting troops along the border” and “say you’re just going to build a wall.” Haley now supports sending special forces after the cartels, and in April, she filmed a video at a section of the border fence that Biden had left undone, declaring that America needed to “finish what we started.”
Firing government employees. Every Republican candidate in Milwaukee has pledged to fire FBI Director Christopher Wray – with one exception. Chris Christie, who recommended Wray when Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey, has said he’d keep him on “if he wanted to stay.”
But that’s about all the disagreement on this topic. All of Trump’s rivals, Christie included, have told activists that they’d restore a last-minute Trump executive order that re-classified tens of thousands of civil servants, allowing a new president to dismantle the left-leaning public sector. Ron DeSantis promises to “use all available Article II authority to restore accountability in the executive branch, move agencies out of DC and slash the bureaucratic state”; Vivek Ramawamy has promised a “headcount reduction” across the government in his first year.
“If somebody works for you, and you cannot fire them, that means they don’t work for you,” Ramaswamy told Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds at their “Fairside Chat” this month. “You can’t fire individual employees who are civil service protected. But those rules do not apply to mass layoffs.” Asa Hutchinson, seen as the most moderate of the onstage candidates, wants to cut the federal workforce by 10%.
“If I had my druthers, I would thoughtfully ask my friend Trey Gowdy to take over the FBI,” Tim Scott said at an Iowa town hall last month. No president has immediately fired the FBI director and appointed a political ally to run the bureau. Scott would hire a former House colleague who chaired the select Benghazi committee.
Health care and taxes. Republican candidates don’t promise to “repeal and replace Obamacare” anymore, starting with Trump. His 2024 promise is the one he made in 2016: He’ll “always protect Medicare, Social Security, and patients with pre-existing conditions.”
The Milwaukee candidates either agree (usually by saying nothing) or want to move toward deeper entitlement reform. Mike Pence endorses an idea that the GOP left for dead in 2017, that “insurance subsidies and low-income healthcare services should be given to the states in the form of flexible block grants.”
Nobody’s come out for an alternative yet. Pence and Christie have both lambasted their party, by which they mean Trump, for not recommitting to entitlement reform; no candidate has disagreed that the 2017 tax cuts need to be extended permanently. That’s not surprising at all – no issue united Republicans more that year – but every candidate is leaning in on a topic Democrats have messaged against for half a decade.
“I think having a chance to provide the American people with the largest tax cut in American history in 2017, as one of the three primary authors of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, really makes me qualified to run our economy,” Scott said at last weekend’s conservative conference in Atlanta, The Gathering.
Foreign policy. There is real disagreement, from both directions, on whether candidates would cut off aid to Ukraine and try to settle the country’s conflict with Russia. It’s also an area where the right/left binary doesn’t apply — the Trump position, that the war is not clearly in America’s interest, is shared by likely Green Party nominee Cornel West.
It can be hard sometimes to pin down a specific plan versus a posture: Trump at one point said he could boost aid to Ukraine if Putin didn’t discuss a peace deal, for example, and more recently said aid should be withheld to force Democratic cooperation in investigations into Hunter Biden. DeSantis and Ramaswamy sound the most like Trump in terms of skepticism towards backing Ukraine’s war effort, while the other six support continued aid. Christie and Pence have even traveled to the country and met with President Volodymyr Zelensky. Every Republican has endorsed Trump’s approach to China, and criticized him only for not going as far in challenging the country as he claimed he would; Christie, the field’s full-time Trump critic, joked in June that Trump would mollify Xi Jinping “with salutes and love letters.”
Most of the field wants complete independence from the Chinese economy – from Haley and Pence calling for the end of normal trade relations, to Ramaswamy wanting to prevent U.S. companies from doing business there altogether. The less-specific candidates have found a safe space, promising to roll back Biden-era regulations and environmental rules, on the premise that they’d make China less of a threat.
Abortion and LGBT rights. Trump has the least precise position on abortion of any candidate, refusing to say whether he’d support new federal limits. But he’s led the field on restricting transgender healthcare and inclusion, promising, before anyone else entered the race, to restore his administration’s gender identity rules and legal language — barring transgender people from the military, barring federal dollars from covering gender transitions.
The Milwaukee candidates fit into two camps on abortion. Ramaswamy, Christie, and Doug Burgum don’t support a federal limit; the other five candidates support at least a ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Their conversation has been dominated by questions about when a federal ban must start, largely because anti-abortion groups, led by SBA Pro-Life America, have demanded candidates get behind a 15-week bill.
“Dobbs says, return that power to the states,” Burgum said at a New Hampshire town hall hosted by WMUR last month. “And that’s where it should be.”
Pence, who helped staff the Trump administration with conservatives, has promised only to appoint “pro-life” cabinet members and healthcare officials. The rest of the field has talked about trans rights and gender identity mostly in the context of who can play on sex-specific sports teams. Pence has more directly defended the Trump record, and said why he’d build on it.
“I think the idea of admitting people who would begin a multi-years process of going through a gender transition – chemical or surgical – people that would not be deployable during that period of time, makes no sense,” Pence told reporters at a stop in Nevada, Iowa last month. “But I also think that having transgender military personnel undermines what the military describes as unit cohesion.”
The View From Democrats
The DNC is bracketing the Trump-free debate, flying a banner over Milwaukee that mocks the field for its “extreme MAGA” views, and sounding close to giddy that none of Trump’s rivals are trying to pick up voters to his left.
“Every Republican candidate has decided that the best way to beat Donald Trump is to ‘out-Trump’ him and advocate for taking his agenda even further,” said DNC national press secretary Ammar Moussa.
- The New York Times pressed the entire field, including two candidates left off the Milwaukee stage, on an array of issues. The candidates who haven’t put out detailed plans didn’t jump to attention; when they say they’re using this debate to introduce themselves, they mean it.