With the first Republican presidential debate coming up Wednesday night in Milwaukee, the overriding question facing the Republican Party is whether, in the end, it will matter at all.

The Republican National Committee has set a series of criteria in order to participate: Candidates have to have a certain number of donors, reach a certain point in polls and pledge to support the Republican nominee. Those are all perfectly reasonable criteria: One has to have a cutoff for debate participation somewhere; otherwise, we could have multinight debates, like we did in 2016, or have dozens of candidates crowded together on stage.

As of this writing, of the 13 declared candidates, only five – Doug Burgum, Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy and Tim Scott – have met those criteria. Some of those names you probably don’t recognize. And you might notice one prominent name missing from the list: Donald J. Trump.

It should be obvious that Trump has no trouble meeting the polling and fundraising criteria; it’s the loyalty pledge that’s causing him trouble.

He’s unwilling to commit to supporting any Republican nominee not named Donald Trump. This is especially rich coming from a guy who was widely supported by most of the party in 2016, despite his nontraditional background, personal controversies and political positions outside the conservative mainstream. It’s also contradictory, given that he’s proven ready and willing to viciously criticize anyone who disagrees with him in the slightest, regardless of which party they’re in. Trump seems to expect unyielding loyalty to him personally but is completely unwilling to return the favor to the party he is again seeking to lead.

The Republican National Committee could change the rules at any time, dropping that criterion entirely in order to allow Trump to participate. Indeed, they may well have already done that by the time you read this. That would be a terrible, disastrous mistake, though, although it would fit the pattern of Ronna McDaniel’s unfortunate tenure as RNC chair. Instead, the RNC should hold firm on the loyalty pledge for a couple of reasons.


For one, Trump’s threat to skip the debates is probably an empty one. Skipping the debates suggests that he’s not quite as strong a candidate as he would have us all believe. After all, if he truly believed he had an ironclad grip on the nomination, he wouldn’t have anything to fear from sharing a stage with the other contenders. Most of them aren’t likely to directly criticize him or his policies, since they’re trying win over his base – though he’s hardly going to reciprocate that reluctance.

In the end, it’s hard to imagine Trump skipping any opportunity for free publicity, but if he does, it says that the race for the Republican nomination is far more wide open than polling currently indicates. If he really wants to show his control over the party, he’ll quit whining about the pledge, show up for the debates and trounce everyone on stage.

Moreover, a debate without Trump would be more likely to erode his support than a debate that he won. Without him there, voters would have a chance to see each of the other candidates lay out their own vision for the country and how to move forward. While there may not be quite as many people tuning in, those who do may well find that they’re more willing to consider the other candidates than they thought.

It’s also important for the RNC to demonstrate that it is truly still a functional political entity, rather than simply being a personal political vehicle for Trump. It is in an awkward, and unenviable, position: It has to try to maintain some sense of neutrality and normalcy in a competitive race, even as a former president tries to return to office. Now is an excellent time for the RNC to demonstrate its independence, holding firm on its own rules for the good of the party, rather than simply kowtowing to Trump.

Regardless whether he wins the nomination again next year, there will come a time when the Republican Party has to move forward after Trump leaves office. In order to do that, it needs to maintain its basic functionality as a party, and that means acting like grown-ups once in a while. If the party doesn’t, if it continues to allow Trump to get away with doing whatever he likes, it will have demonstrated that it is more interested in doing his bidding rather than what’s best for the country – or the party.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
Twitter: @jimfossel

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