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The RNC Debate Rule Doesn't Hurt Trump, it Helps Him
Even candidates who have been highly critical of him are still willing to back him as the nominee
The Republican National Committee is considering a rule change that would bar presidential candidates from Republican debates if they do not agree to unconditionally back whomever the Republican presidential nominee is.
This move is being described as something that would potentially hurt Donald Trump’s candidacy, but I think the right way to see this is a defense of him.
Now, to be sure, this is the sort of thing that hurt him in 2016. Candidates were asked at that point whether they would agree to back whomever the nominee was, and Trump, true to form, said he’d back the nominee if it was him, and threatened to run as an independent otherwise.
And there’s at least an implicit threat in 2024 that Trump might lose the party’s nomination but go rogue, splitting the Republican vote. Not many people could mount a credible independent presidential candidacy, but Trump, with his vast resources, universal name recognition, and loyal following, could substantially affect the outcome of such a race, probably ensuring a Democratic victory. Obviously Republican leaders worry about this.
But this RNC edict is far less a constraint on Trump than it is on other candidates.
As Charlie Sykes and Tim Miller noted in this recent podcast, several potential presidential candidates who have been very critical of Trump have been asked recently if they would support Trump as the Republican nominee. New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, for example, who last year described Trump as “fucking crazy,” now says he’d back Trump as the Republican nominee, because the alternative is worse.
Similarly, former Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, who has previously said that Trump had blood on his hands for the January 6th insurrection, is now refusing to say he won’t support Trump as the GOP nominee. Asked by Hugh Hewitt whether he’d support Trump, Hogan just repeatedly dodged the question and said he doesn’t think Trump will be the nominee.
Why are these candidates saying such things? Pretty clearly, they don’t want to write off a large chunk of the Republican electorate as they consider tossing their hat in the ring. The logic there is still pretty striking – theoretically any Republican primary voter who likes Trump could just vote for, well, Trump. Larry Hogan is not going to win those voters over. Indeed, he may even been writing off some of the anti-Trump Republican voters by taking this stance.
The RNC edict could affect candidates like this. More pointedly, it’s directed at former Rep. Liz Cheney, who could plausibly run an anti-Trump candidacy within the Republican presidential contest. Unlike others, Cheney has never really waivered in her Trump opposition since the January 6th insurrection. And while such a candidacy would almost certainly fail, it would be a credible voice and focal point for the anti-Trump forces within the party. By denying her access to the debates, the RNC edict would fundamentally silence her.
Another signal that this debate rule is likely a defense of Trump is that it’s coming from the RNC, which has been pretty profoundly in Trump’s corner for years now. The RNC censured its own members of Congress for not defending Trump, declared its endorsement of Trump’s agenda in lieu of actually writing a platform in 2020, and has never failed to rally to his defense since he became the nominee in 2016.
While I really can’t imagine the RNC denying Trump a space on a debate stage, he’s also probably the candidate who needs that stage the least. He could hold a rally simultaneously, or he could organize his own debate and invite other candidates to choose between his debate or the RNC-sanctioned one. He has options. It’s the other candidates who would struggle under this rule.