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So The GOP Had A Debate
How Did The Candidates Do?
Facts matter. Yet when one is watching a political debate, some of the most relevant “facts” are how people react to the candidates. It is not merely a question of what is being said, but also a question of how it is being said. Facts matter, but, in an election, so do impressions.
This will be a departure from my usual efforts to bring facts and evidence to bear. Rather, this is me reacting to the debates as an ordinary voter. Voter reactions are what lead voters to back certain candidates, and voter sentiments are what drive voters to the polls on Election Day.
For whatever they are worth, these are my initial reactions to the candidates as they debated.
As it is a given that each candidate is going to spin their record and background to their own advantage, short of a candidate telling an absolute whopper of a lie, there is not a superabundance of facts to consider in such a debate. This debate was more about policy objectives, not policy supporting materials. Accordingly, I am not going to dissect each candidate’s response for factual accuracy.
Using the order Fox News arrayed them on the stage, here is my take on the performance of each:
Ron DeSantis gave an uneven performance. He was strongest when he was pushing his vision of a “mission-oriented” Presidency. He made good use of his Florida track record, as evidenced by the fact that no one called him out on it.
However, he had a tendency to fall back into anodyne talking points. This may have been because when he didn’t do that, he ended up spending way too much time trying to split hairs. This was most notable in his effort to explain his stance on Ukraine: he supported the idea of continued US aid to Ukraine but wanted it to be contingent on Europe stepping up with more support.
DeSantis’ most controversial stance was when he pledged to use military force against the Mexican drug cartels. He made it quite clear he would not hesitate to cross the border to take on the cartels. His statement accusing China of an “act of war” against the US for smuggling fentanyl into the US was quite remarkable. Not even Ramaswamy went that far, and he was the debate’s attack dog all night long.
Despite having some strong moments, DeSantis ended up being completely overshadowed by Ramaswamy.
Vivek Ramaswamy was without a doubt the “happy warrior” of the bunch. From the start his strategy was simple: go big or go home.
Although he’s the youngest candidate and the only true political outsider (like Trump was in 2016), he was not hesitant or tentative at all.
His promise to “burn coal” will no doubt trigger more than a few environmentalists, but at a time when he needed to draw clear distinctions between himself and the other candidates, he dispensed with any notion of playing it safe. Rather, on topics as diverse as energy, Trump, education, and Ukraine, Ramaswamy eagerly chose to tackle them head-on, without flinching. He was the only candidate who chose to be bold and different. On climate change in particular, he was bound to be polarizing: no one who calls climate change a “hoax” is doing anything but swinging for the cheap seats.
But Vivek did more than just throw down the rhetorical gauntlet. He brought policy specifics to the table—on education he didn’t just go with the now standard GOP formula of “disband the Department of Education and break up the teachers’ unions”, but also added taking the funding for the Department of Education and routing it back to parents and families to facilitate school choice and school competition. I’m not sure how that would work in practice, but his theme of putting parents in ultimate control of education was a nice touch. His connecting the dots between good education and the nuclear family is sure to play well with social conservatives (a mainstay of the GOP electorate).
Was he “too bold” and “too different”? Only time will tell. Being polarizing is probably helpful to him as it drives name recognition. At some point he is going to have to become more unifying, but he first has to survive long enough to narrow the field.
There was an interesting dynamic at play: Most of the other candidates put more time and energy into attacking Ramaswamy than they did attacking Ron DeSantis. While the polls put DeSantis as the “number two” candidate behind Donald Trump, the GOP field itself was acting as if Ramaswamy were the number two candidate. That’s a good look for Ramaswamy but not a good look for DeSantis.
Mike Pence was simply annoying. His constant references to his Christian faith were especially jarring—there’s a line between religious belief and religious bigotry, and he frequently had at least a couple of his toes on that line. His attempts to dismiss Vivek Ramaswamy as a “rookie” who needed “on the job training” fell flat—it didn’t help that Pence served as VP during the Presidency of another “rookie”. The debate audience seemed to think so as well. For most of the night he came across as annoyed and condescending, particularly towards Vivek Ramaswamy. On more than one occasion he attempted to imply that Ramaswamy had no business even being on the stage, and that the business of governing the country should be left to the “experts” such as Mike Pence. He seemed to resent the fact that Ramaswamy, a political neophyte, was at present outpolling him.
He also tried to have it both ways on Donald Trump. He wanted to leverage the Trump presidency as his own resume of accomplishment, yet continually implied that the Department of Justice was not just within its rights to prosecute Trump, but was right to prosecute Trump. (Note: I’ve discussed my own position on the Trump indictments at some length within the confines of this Substack)
Pence also failed to make a good defense of how he conducted himself during the J6 riots. If he stays in the race at some point he is going to have to answer for why he did not back setting up an Electoral Commission as was done in 1876 or otherwise pushing the 2020 Presidential election to the House of Representatives as mandated by the Constitution. There is a vital distinction between defending the Constitution and defending the Deep State, and Mike Pence completely failed to make it. Given that he was the Vice President on January 6, 2021, he is the candidate who needs to make that distinction, which only magnifies that failure.
Nikki Haley was the one candidate willing to call out the Republicans in Congress for their budgetary incontinence, pointing out that Republicans put more pork in budget bills than Democrats. That was a good moment for her, because it showed more honesty and realism about spending indiscipline within the Federal government than was to be had from anyone else on the debate stage, including Ramaswamy (this might be one area where his stance as a businessman not a politician does not really help him). However, even with that it seemed she was trying to position herself as an outsider candidate, which is not a convincing look given that she’s a career politician.
On abortion her argument about there not being votes in the Congress for a federal abortion ban fell flat—as President it would be her job to engage with Congress to find those votes. Her rebuttal to Mike Pence’ stance that 70% of Americans supported limits on abortion sounded like an admission that the Senate in particular was not representative of the American people, which is arguably a true statement, but is not the sort of indictment of the Federal government one wants to make without pitching at least a couple of solutions. She could have used her observations about Congress to pitch a vision of how she would get Congress to follow the will of the people more than they do now, and failed utterly to develop any ideas along those lines.
Nikki also had one of the better attacks on Vivek Ramaswamy when she challenged him on support for Israel. In a rather fiery exchange with Ramaswamy she never deviated from her contention that he would essentially abandon Israel and basically called him a liar when he said he would be Israel’s best friend. She showed an understanding of how he tried to dominate a mike with his answers and simply talked over him. It worked because he never got to launch any verbal broadsides as was his attack pattern with everyone else on the debate stage.
Chris Christie had one of the best lines of the debate when he slammed Vivek Ramaswamy as the “ChatGPT candidate”. He also tried to compare Ramaswamy to Barak Obama as “that skinny guy with the funny name”—which frankly sounded a bit racist and xenophobic (Ramaswamy’s parents are Hindu Tamils who emigrated from India before Ramaswamy was born). Lost in the loud audience reaction was Ramaswamy’s comeback “can I get a hug like you gave Obama? You’ll help me get elected just like you helped Obama?”
Unfortunately for Christie, the ChatGPT line was his only standout line of the night. The rest of the debate he was alternately boring and annoying. He struggled to articulate any positions which differentiated himself from the other Republican candidates (although his response on gun control was interesting), and it seemed at times his only argument for why he should get the nod was because he was a Republican governor of a largely Democratic state; he at times tried to force a comparison on that basis between himself and Ronald Reagan which just fell flat.
His spin on the gubernatorial part of his resume was an interesting choice on his part, because his most interesting response referred to his career as a US Attorney, and it was that experience that he called upon to answer a question on gun control. He adroitly reframed the question as one of cracking down on crime, and pledged that he would as President use the US Attorneys to prosecute violent criminals when local district attorneys would not. I’m not entirely sure that’s a workable strategy but it definitely played well to the law-and-order types in the audience.
Tim Scott sounded like a Senator throughout the debate. That’s a problem when the campaign is about whom should be President. He showed a fair grasp of the facts and figures of each of the issues raised by the moderators, but his responses tended to be formulaic. He didn’t really have any responses I found to be memorable or noteworthy. The Fox News analysts described him as “flying under the radar”, which strikes me as a problematic when the contest is about who is going to lead the United States for the next four years.
Asa Hutchinson came across as bland and as boring as could be. On abortion and on education he tried to argue his track record as governor of Arkansas, and how that track record made him a true leader on those issues. However, on no issue did he have a dramatic and compelling response. Even on education, when he played up his role in crafting Arkansas’ computer science curriculum, there was none of the verbal pyrotechnics Ramaswamy had. Compared to Vivek Ramaswamy, Hutchinson looked almost asleep.
His condemnation of Trump did not play well with the audience. Like Mike Pence he was unwilling to acknowledge that there is any political controversy behind the Trump indictments, and that to me seemed to be a mistake. I don’t see accepting Jack Smith’s indictments against Donald Trump as a way to win the primaries with Republican voters.
Doug Burgum had perhaps the most intriguing moment of the debate when he invoked the Tenth Amendment in a question on abortion, and even produced a small bound copy of the US Constitution to punctuate his position. Burgum was the only candidate on the stage who openly acknowledged that there are limits to Presidential authority, and that some problems had to be left to the states to solve. He returned to that theme particularly on education, taking a states rights approach to educational policy.
I liked his emphasis on the Constitution providing limited authority to a President and to a Congress. It is refreshing to see a candidate step back from the “Imperial Presidency” model of governance. Unfortunately, he failed to really develop that theme. If he had grounded his responses in the Constitutional powers of the President he could have shown himself to have more politlcal substance than anyone else, but he simply missed that opportunity. Ultimately, he was a non-factor in the debate.
As had to be expected, Donald Trump was present even without being there. Throughout the debate, and particularly when the debate moderators turned the questioning towards Trump’s multiple indictments, Trump’s presence was palpable. Even Vivek Ramaswamy declared President Trump to be “the best President of the 21st century”—a declaration that will make a future debate with Donald Trump particularly challenging for Vivek.
Trump probably made a wise choice by not being on the debate stage. Aside from DeSantis and Ramaswamy, no one on stage last night is commanding enough voter attention according to the polling to be a credible alternative to Trump. By not being on the same stage he sent a very clear message that none of those candidates have either the following or the campaign chops to win the GOP nomination or win the general election, and with the exception of Vivek Ramaswamy none of the candidates last night did much to dispel that perception.
Note that I have not declared any person to be the “winner” of the debate. A debate of this sort is not “won” or “lost”—and none of the debates will be “won” or “lost” until the GOP finally selects their nominee next summer. None of the debates between that nominee and the Democratic nominee (presumably Joe Biden) will be “won” or “lost” until the votes are counted in November 2024.
However, there is no question that Vivek Ramaswamy had a very good night. He is by far the youngest candidate in the GOP field at 38 years old—and if elected would be the youngest American President ever, beating out both Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy for that title—but held his own on a stage dominated by career politicians with decades of policy debates in their collective back pocket. His eagerness to call out the political establishment in the US for their collective policy and political failures is likely to play well particularly with GOP voters, but could have some crossover appeal should he get the GOP nod. With 65% of US voters thinking the US is on a wrong path, taking a rhetorical cudgel to the political establishment can be the sort of campaign rhetoric to attract independent voters and even Democrats.
Ron DeSantis had an okay night. He wasn’t as verbally combative as Ramaswamy, but neither did he come across as bitter and angry the way Pence did. His theme of a “mission oriented” Presidency could make for interesting campaign trail rhetoric. His image took a bit of a hit, however, by the fact that everyone had their knives out for Ramaswamy rather than him. With an election field this crowded, the candidate all the other candidates are willing to attack is by definition the one to beat. DeSantis would have gotten a shot in the arm had he been the one under attack from all sides; that they didn’t gang up just doesn’t make his candidacy look strong.
Nikki Haley also had a good night. In a field of candidates where there is not a lot of policy difference, she took advantage of opportunities to differentiate herself from the others on the stage. Being willing to take on GOP spending habits was a good way to do that. While it is debateable how much she would follow through on that challenge should she actually win the Presidency, having thrown down that guantlet could set the stage for future debates.
Mike Pence had a horrible night. Much of his name recognition comes from being Donald Trump’s VP, yet he never managed to make his VP turn a credible case for him being President. He completely missed the mark on questions about Donald Trump and the J6 riot. He had an opportunity to make a defense of how he handled events on January 6, 2021, but simply did not do so. He seemed oblivious to the need to do so, which is no way to connect with GOP voters.
Everyone else had an unremarkable night. For all their efforts to channel Ronald Reagan, none of them showed the rhetorical skill that made Reagan “The Great Communicator”. None of them showed even a fraction of Ramaswamy’s energy and passion.
Vivek Ramaswamy is likely to get a bit of a bounce in election polls after his debate performance last night. Ron DeSantis may succeed in halting for a time his slide in the polls. No one else is likely to see any positive polling outcome after last night’s debate. Trump is almost certain to retain his majority position in the polls.
To be sure, these are just my impressions from watching the debate. This is how the candidates came across to me. The Fox News analysts had their opinions of the debate and the candidates, and so will other voters. There are no “right” or “wrong” answers to the question of how each candidate performed in the debate.
Last night the Republican electorate got a chance to see what their options are besides Donald Trump. It was interesting to see what the alternatives to Trump look like, and what their presumptive policies might look like. With the possible exception of Vivek Ramaswamy, I do not see where any of the candidates made a convincing case that they are a viable alternative to Donald Trump, much less a better choice than Donald Trump.
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