The nation got an insight Wednesday night into what Floridians already suspected — that Gov. Ron DeSantis ousted two Democratic prosecutors, turned schools into culture-war battlegrounds and purposefully underplayed the state’s response to COVID to create bragging rights for his own political ambitions.
That is a logical inference from his frequent boasts during the first Republican presidential debate.
But the debate was light on what voters need most to hear: Why Donald Trump should not be president again.
Too many Americans believe he’s still the best choice, even after he tried to steal a legitimate election from millions of Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike — culminating in a violent mob attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Trump’s dominant absence
Of the eight candidates on stage, only two — Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson — had the fortitude to declare Trump unfit. “Somebody has got to stop normalizing this conduct,” said Christie, the former New Jersey governor who had been a federal prosecutor. “Whether you believe the criminal charges are right or wrong, the conduct is beneath the office of the president of the United States.”
Amen to that.
Hutchinson, another former governor and prosecutor, properly cited Trump’s potential disqualification under the 14th Amendment, the post-Civil War enactment that bars federal and state offices to anyone who had “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” against the Constitution after taking an oath to support it.
“Over a year ago,” said Hutchinson, “I said that Donald Trump was morally disqualified from being president again as a result of what happened on January 6. More people are understanding the importance of that, including conservative legal scholars.”
The six other candidates raised their hands to show they would support Trump as the Republican nominee even if he is convicted of any of the 91 felony charges awaiting him in four different courts. That was shameful.
That included Vice President Mike Pence, whose life Trump put in danger after his refusal to discard electoral votes for Biden. Pence ably defended his refusal to support Trump at the expense of the Constitution he’d sworn to uphold. But he did not try to rationalize why he would spare Trump the consequences of his actions.
None of the panelists suggested any other conclusive reason they should replace Trump as the presumptive nominee, although Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor, scored strong points over his contribution to the national debt. She was also the only one to point out the logistical and humane barriers to a national law restricting abortions.
The reluctance of most of the panel to criticize Trump made the former president the effective winner of the debate that he so ostentatiously and arrogantly refused to participate in. His no-show status was a put-down of his rivals, and an insult to the cultish voters he takes for granted.
DeSantis: ‘In Florida, I ….’
DeSantis stood at center stage, but he didn’t stand tall.
Trump’s leading but distant challenger got off easy, using rehearsed, sanitized talking points about his Florida record to evade commitments on the nation’s most controversial subjects. He refused, for example, to say whether he would sign a national ban on post-six-week abortions like the one he had enacted in Florida.
But by going out of their way to pay DeSantis no attention, the other rivals passed up repeated opportunities to challenge his misrule of Florida. Instead, Fox News moderators favored him with softball questions, and nobody pierced the governor’s bloviation and redirection on key foreign-policy questions.
The worst admissions came from DeSantis himself, when he boasted of having removed the two state attorneys, Andrew Warren and Monique Worrell, whom he accused — falsely — of refusing to enforce laws and blew his familiar anti-Semitic dog-whistle citation of their support from the Jewish philanthropist George Soros.
The DeSantis on stage was not the crony-promoting, constitution-shredding, drag-queen-obsessed DeSantis Floridians know. Not by a long shot.
Republicans deserve better
The debate failed the public in another major respect. Not one of the eight raised a hand when asked whether they agreed on human-caused climate change, the most critical issue facing the planet.
DeSantis could have led on this — at one point, he was lauded as one of the few Republicans willing to tackle this urgent challenge. Instead, he left it to Haley, who verbally acknowledged that climate change is real, saying that “we need to start telling China and India that they have to lower their emissions.” Meanwhile, Vivek Ramaswamy, the 37-year-old entrepreneur who was by far the most disruptive element on stage Wednesday, called climate change a “hoax.”
That’s just one example underscoring the impression that Ramaswamy is all platitude and no depth, utterly unprepared for the presidency and spouting from the playbook of the Heritage Foundation, which is heavily financed by the fossil fuel industry.
His antics demonstrated yet again why debates of such national importance should not be held in front of live audiences that don’t heed ground rules. The cheers, shouting and occasional catcalls often drowned out voices the national audience needed to hear.
The moderators tried to keep the candidates focused on issues and to enforce their time limits, but the disadvantages were obvious.
The most important takeaway is that none of the eight candidates made their case for taking the spotlight away from Donald Trump — even in Trump’s absence. That’s a sad disservice to those GOP voters who tuned in Wednesday night, hoping a clear alternative would emerge from Trump’s long and sooty shadow.
Republicans deserved better, and future debates should deliver.
The Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board consists of Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson, Opinion Editor Krys Fluker and Viewpoints Editor Jay Reddick. The Sun Sentinel Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Steve Bousquet, Deputy Editorial Page Editor Dan Sweeney, editorial writer Martin Dyckman and Anderson. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.