The Real Debate Republicans Need | Opinion
Even before the first Republican presidential debate of the 2024 cycle kicks off, former President Donald Trump is already the 800-pound gorilla in the room—whether he is on the stage or not. Months of news cycles focused on whether he will show up have played into Trump’s hands by keeping him at the center of attention. Unquestionably, some candidates will spend more time at the debate defending Trump from four different indictments than articulating why the Republican Party must move in a different direction. Meanwhile, to even get on the stage, candidates were forced to sign a pledge of fealty when no one expected for a moment that Trump would bother to return the favor.
If the Republican primary is a referendum on whether to remain a cult of personality, it’s clear which side currently has the upper hand. Despite this depressing state of affairs, all hope is not lost. The fact that tonight is only the first debate is a reminder that voters are only now beginning to pay attention to the Republican primary.
However, Trump cannot be defeated with nothing. When I announced I was not seeking the Republican nomination, I noted that in 2020 the party didn’t even bother passing a campaign platform and that we needed to start having a real debate about what can still unite us as Republicans if we ever hope to return to a party of principle. In the last month, over 100 signatories from across the conservative movement signed their name to a “Freedom Conservatism” statement of 10 principles that apply the timeless values of liberty to the challenges of the 21st century. I was proud to now add my name to it, and I urge other Republican leaders to join me.
The statement returns us to protecting the core American values at the root of our founding that have made our country the envy of the world: liberty, checks and balances, returning control to families and communities, and adhering to a nation of laws—not men. It recognizes that the free enterprise system is the foundation of prosperity and the skyrocketing debt is an existential threat to our economic future. The principles call us to oppose racial discrimination in any form, recognize that America’s interests are best served when we lead the world by championing liberty and sovereignty, and understand that our nation is exceptional because anyone—from any corner of the Earth—can seek to live in America and become an American.
If the Republican primary is simply about a clash of personalities, no one on that stage will be able to defeat the ultimate entertainer-in-chief. He understands best that chaos, drama, and a sense of nihilism play right into his hands. Rebuilding the party of Ronald Reagan starts with remembering that what is at stake is much more important than yet another reality TV show contest.
It will also require our leaders to recognize that this moment is too important to put personal ambition ahead of principle. In a party of principle, the candidates who fail to qualify for the debate because they don’t register in the polls would end their campaigns instead of contributing to a crowded field that enables Trump. In a party of principle, no one should be running to land a cabinet position or a cable TV contract. In a party of principle, if you are unwilling to challenge the frontrunner, then you have no business being in the race.
For too long, Republican voters have been denied a real debate about what our party stands for beyond loyalty to Donald Trump. The principles articulated in the Freedom Conservatism statement should be a roadmap to return to that debate. Instead of more silly pledges and cable news antics—that’s what Republican voters and the American people deserve.
Larry Hogan is the former governor of Maryland, and chair of An America United.