Eight candidates have qualified for first 2024 Republican presidential debate taking place in Milwaukee, Wisconsin Image Credit: Shutterstock

When would-be GOP nominees for president meet to debate for the first time in Milwaukee on Wednesday, some “great debates” dividing Republicans today might or might not unfold in public view, even as they dominate online conversations and activist gatherings.

This first is whether the prosecutorial siege of former president Donald Trump should - or inevitably will - capture the whole of the party in a re-litigation of the 2020 election and the perceived unveiling of a politicized “two-tiered” justice system.

That’s the elephant in the room for any gathering of elephants, but Republicans don’t leave it undiscussed for long. Plus, it’s a favorite topic of a legacy media vastly arrayed against the center-right on all issues.

Fox News anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, the debate’s moderators, will have to battle to keep this whirlpool of controversies from absorbing the entire two hours - as Democrats no doubt hope it will.

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Peace through strength

Another issue is the divide within the party over Ukraine, China and, to a lesser extent, Iran. Republicans collide over the choice between a resurgent Reaganism of the “peace through strength” sort, and a neo-isolationism that seeks both to cut off military support for Ukraine and to demand a reckoning for the “neocons” disdained by this “new old” faction.

Led by former Fox News host Tucker Carlson and David Sacks, an investor and GOP funder with an influential podcast, this neo-isolationist school depends on University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer for its intellectual veneer.

But Mearsheimer is of limited influence party-wide because of his perceived antipathy toward Israel. That leaves it up to Carlson, Sacks and a few others from outside the party’s leadership, as well as Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) and allies from inside Congress, to make the case for disengagement in Ukraine.

If any of the GOP candidates need to get up to speed, a good place to start would be the Netflix docudrama “The Social Dilemma,” an Emmy Award winner seen by more than 100 million people worldwide since its 2020 release. It is a fine docudrama.

GoP candidates debating at 2024 presidential primary debate on Wednesday
Ron DeSantis

Mike Pence

Nikki Haley

Vivek Ramaswamy

Chris Christie

Tim Scott

Asa Hutchinson

Doug Burgum

It is also extremely manipulative, but it is invaluable as a warning for parents and policymakers about the addictions that come with social media.

Just as I wanted to talk with Sacks to learn more about what drives the GOP’s neo-isolationist movement, I also interviewed Harris (Tristan Harris, founder of Center for Humane Technology) this week to get a better understanding of what’s behind these technology warnings.

Who's taking command?

The threat is genuine, but when anyone rises to prominence by sounding alarms - whether about funding Ukraine’s self-defense or about the spread of AI - it is essential to ask who’s issuing the warnings and what is their agenda. That’s “the trust dilemma”: In every debate about national security, tech, education or public health, whom do we trust?

I came away from the Harris interview convinced that he and his colleagues, even if using emotional levers to get their points across, are genuinely deeply apprehensive about the direction AI is taking. I’m also convinced that their counsel of extreme caution is heartfelt, even if solutions are in short supply.

Harris is as suspicious of the national security apparatus as many conservatives, but Republicans generally view Silicon Valley as an isolated, privileged and extraordinarily wealthy enclave of left-wing activists who have long used their wealth and other tools to silence Republicans and protect Democrats. GOP voters will insist that the nominee emerge with a vow to bind Big Tech to the country’s best interests.

The promise and peril of new technology is too big a subject for political candidates to tackle in a sound bite, but on a debate stage, they should at least be expected to demonstrate that they are informed enough to responsibly direct policy on it.

More GOP debates will follow in the fall and the coming year. American public needs to know who among the Republican candidates is capable of taking command. -- Washington Post

Hugh Hewitt is a noted radio host and professor of law.