On Wednesday night, seven men and one woman took part in what might go down as the least important debate in presidential campaign history.
Throughout the first GOP primary debate of the 2024 election cycle, all the participants desperately tried to establish their bona fides in front of a crowd that seemed — from the booing that former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie received when he went after Donald Trump’s moral and legal challenges — overwhelmingly pro-Trump. Meanwhile, Trump himself had declined to join the rough-and-tumble and was basking in the coverage of his pre-recorded interview on Twitter with Tucker Carlson, which, according to preliminary estimates, had received 74 million views by the time the GOP debate ended. Trump also sought to use his Thursday surrender and arrest in Atlanta as a way to siphon off as much interest in the debate as he possibly could.
To their credit, the two Fox moderators, Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, asked some relatively hardball questions. They pushed the candidates on whether they backed a national abortion ban. They brought in a young Republican to ask about climate change and whether the candidates would acknowledge it was real — with the exception of former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, none of the candidates would wholeheartedly go down that road. Halfway in, they got around to asking the candidates’ positions on Trump and his four pending trials, as well as his actions surrounding January 6. They also asked about Ukraine, about how to tackle the fentanyl crisis, about homelessness and about rising crime rates. These are all serious issues, and the moderators attempted to steer the conversation to cover this large and fertile ground.
Most of the candidates did at least try to answer the questions sent their way. Haley gave surprisingly honest answers on abortion, saying that she was pro-life but didn’t want the federal government to impose rules on the states, wasn’t comfortable with judges being the final arbiters of such a politically and morally contentious question, and had no time for the idea of imprisoning those who chose to terminate their pregnancies. Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson restated their anti-Trump positions, saying he neither should be president nor could win a general election. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott came off as rather calm — at least until he started ranting about abortion and transgender people. Even Mike Pence, odious theocrat that he clearly is, came off as measured and well-versed in public policy on most issues — though his interventions on abortion were at least as strident as those of any other candidate on the Milwaukee stage.
Yet the real story of the night was that of the two candidates currently vying for second place in the GOP nominating contest. Vivek Ramaswamy, the wealthy 38-year-old investment holding company owner, clearly had taken a page out of Trump’s playbook, aiming to suck all the oxygen his way — and to take advantage of Trump’s absence by spewing forth a nonstop barrage of politically inane proposals, formulaic statements, lies and insults. Ramaswamy assured his audience that “God is real,” hardly a point of controversy, one would think, amongst a group of GOP primary voters. He was adamant that climate change is a hoax, and that the U.S. ought to double down on its fossil fuel investments. “The anti-carbon agenda is the wet blanket on our economy,” he opined, which infuriated Christie enough that he shot back, “I’ve had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT.”
Ramaswamy’s awfulness continued unabated. Whenever he got the chance, he interrupted. He talked loudly and he talked nonstop. No matter that he was spouting nonsense, it was nonsense that at least a part of the GOP base always laps up. He assured the audience that he would pardon Trump “on day one” — both Christie and Pence responded that one couldn’t pardon someone who hadn’t pled guilty, and that it was jumping the gun somewhat to promise a pardon to someone who hadn’t yet been convicted and who certainly hadn’t expressed contriteness for his actions. Ramaswamy also promised that he would launch a war on the administrative state, abolishing everything from the education department to the nuclear regulatory agency. He lied about Democrats pushing abortion-on-demand right up until the time of birth, and he falsely claimed he could solve crime by locking down the southern border and locking up houseless people with mental illness in asylums. He decried U.S. support for Ukraine and argued more generally against U.S. engagement with the world. When opponents attempted to cut him down to size, he simply talked louder and faster and spouted untruths at an evermore frenetic pace.
If the GOP is looking for a new king of outrage, a Mini-Me to Trump’s evil id, Ramaswamy put in a pretty good application at yesterday’s Milwaukee debate. Then again, and this was the central flaw in the debate-without-Trump strategy, why would the GOP go for a new king, when they still have Trump, riding high despite — or because of — the four criminal trials that he is now facing? Christie tried to use Ramaswamy as a substitute for Trump, a foil against which he could throw his “I’m protecting the constitution, I’m protecting the law” rhetoric; but it rapidly became clear that beating up on a pale imitation is much less useful, and less publicity-generating, than honing in on the real deal.
Speaking of a pale imitation, how about DeSantis? The Florida governor, who was marketed six months ago as the rising star of a conservative post-Trump firmament, both showed himself unable to grab the spotlight — half the time, he seemed simply an afterthought, the man who had been given the central podium on the platform, yet was unable to in any way dominate the conversation — and to also be a truly lousy public speaker. His early answers sounded horrifically canned — “Our country is in decline.” We will be “energy dominant again in this country” — his delivery almost robotic. Time and again he ignored the questions he was asked and instead simply used his answers as an opportunity to pivot to the legal woes facing, and alleged favoritism doled out to, Hunter Biden. His performance came off as tailored to pre-debate focus groups rather than as a man able and willing to think on his feet to meet the changing demands of the moment.
Governor DeSantis spoke too loud and too fast at some points in the debate, and too wonkishly at other times; perhaps a slightly more rational, but probably less entertaining, version of Ramaswamy. He danced around the Trump issue, refusing to say whether the ex-president’s travails disqualified him from running again for the presidency, and also refusing to say whether he’d pardon Trump if elected president. It took both the moderators and Mike Pence several nudges to get DeSantis to even acknowledge that Pence did the right thing on January 6, 2021, by refusing to overturn the constitutional order. It made for some fascinating — if depressing — television theatrics.
Given the dominance of Trump stories in the news at the moment, it’s hard to see how this debate will have moved the needle very far for any of the other candidates. It was, to be sure, a missed opportunity for DeSantis, and an exercise in pure frustration for the anti-Trumpists on the platform. As for Ramaswamy, my guess is that the part of the GOP base who groove and grok on outrage have already chosen their version of utterly banal and dishonest — and that version is Donald J. Trump.
It’s possible that Haley, Pence and Scott managed to bolster their credentials slightly, and it wouldn’t surprise me if these three saw small spikes in their popularity in the coming days and weeks. It also wouldn’t surprise me if, as the field rapidly winnows, this troika makes it down the stretch in the fight to take on Trump in the run-up to Super Tuesday. But if this was the debate that was supposed to fundamentally shake up the GOP primary landscape, it’s hard to see how it was anything other than a Fox-flop.
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