This Was A Debate?
None Of The Candidates Were The "Adults In The Room"
What a mess. That is the most charitable way to describe the second Republican Presidential Primary Debate for the 2024 election cycle.
It was a mess. It was a sloppy, juvenile, rude debate. Every candidate managed to shoot themselves in the foot at least once. The moderators could not keep control over the proceedings (and that is why they are there). One of the moderators, Dana Perino, had the temerity to end the debate like an episode of the reality show “Survivor” by asking the candidates which one of them should be “voted off the island.”.
Yes, she really did say that. The only thing that kept it being epic cringe on its own was that the candidates had been acting just as bad. It was a juvenile question, but these were juvenile candidates.
While the candidates all had good moments, outside of their moments none of them even vaguely resembled “the adult in the room.”
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Since the first debate, the overall trajectory of the candidates in the polls has been Donald Trump building his lead over the other candidates.
A commenter on Notes made an important observation: the debates are about who takes second place in the GOP primary race.
That is, I think, the most productive context in which to frame the second debate—and even the Fox pundits providing color commentary on the debate said as much. Donald Trump is leading the GOP primary race and it would take an absolutely stellar breakout performance by one of the candidates on the debate stage to change that dynamic.
That breakout performance did not happen. What did happen was a lot of bickering and squabbling. What did happen was candidates going out of their way to run roughshod over the moderators and each other just to take their various pot shots.
The full debate can be viewed on Rumble for those who want to see just what I mean.
To be fair, the candidates did have individual moments where their responses were good. Unfortunately, those moments were few and the obnoxious moments where they ignored the time clock, interrupted the moderators, and interrupted each other were many. Still, the debates are ultimately about the candidates, so, as I did with the last debate, permit me to go through each candidate’s overall performance and assess what I saw as their strengths and weaknesses.
Ron DeSantis arguably had the best night. He did not have a great night, but he did have some strong moments. When the moderator from Univision, Ilia Calderon, served up something of a “gotcha” question about Florida’s education curriculum and how it handled the teaching of Black history in this country, DeSantis gave a strong pushback, although perhaps not a great response.
“So first of all, that’s a hoax that was perpetrated by Kamala Harris. We are not going to be doing that. Second of all, that was written by descendants of slaves. These are great Black history scholars. So we need to stop playing these games. Here’s the deal: Our country’s education system is in decline because it’s focused on indoctrination, denying parents rights. Florida represents the revival of American education.”
The media has already had much to say about that curriculum, and it was rather disappointing of the moderator to seek to relitigate that question yet again. One point that DeSantis has made in the past and which he brought forward yet again was that the Florida Department of Education’s curriculum is supposed to be grounded in facts.
For better or worse, DeSantis has been steadfast in defending the Florida Department of Education, while at the same time emphasizing his own personal distance from the curriculum itself. His debate response was of a piece with this, that he is championing good educational standards and education grounded in facts rather than indoctrination rooted in various political narratives.
Whether that is or is not a stance that will resonate with various demographics remains a question. As the media furor over Florida’s educational curriculum has continued, DeSantis’ has lost considerable support in the polls.
DeSantis did not alter the tenor of that discussion with his response, which makes it unlikely he will alter the trajectory of his poll numbers.
DeSantis did have a strong response on Ukraine. He was the only candidate who emphasized ending the war. While the other candidates talked about the importance of “degrading Russia”, Ron DeSantis took the stance that the war simply needs to end. I strongly support that view of the war in Ukraine, so that answer definitely resonated with me.
DeSantis also had a good response on health insurance and Florida’s above average numbers of residents without insurance. After a bit of a pivot to frame the issue as one of broader economics, he closed by pointing out that Florida does not have the welfare system of other states. That was a simple and direct answer which voters can digest for themselves when deciding on DeSantis Presidential aspirations.
Nikki Haley could have had a good night, but time and again she was unable to resist getting into a tiff with one of the other candidates. That might have worked had she (along with the other candidates) not then spent so much time talking over each other and making individual responses impossible hear.
Her response on healthcare reform and Obamacare was formulaic—tort reform, transparency, patient rights—and it was dated. Politicians have been making the same promises for decades; that a politician feels the need to say it again does not speak well to the impact that message has had over the years.
Nikki Haley also took an arguably controversial stance by declaring her willingness to send US special forces into Mexico to take on the Mexican drug cartels. Left unstated was whether Mexico would go along with such a policy, and nations generally prefer that the military of other nations stay out.
Hailey also was monomanical about China. In nearly every question she repeatedly found a way to pivot to China and the flow of fentanyl from China to into the US. This is an important issue facing this country but it is hardly the only issue that needs better attantion.
Vivek Ramaswamy did not have a great night. He made a major tactical blunder by invoking Ronald Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of thy fellow Republican.” Given his attack-dog style of debate the first time around, the attempt to pivot and take a high road lacked any acknowledgment of his comments during that first debate. The other candidates were quick to seize on the blatant hypocrisy.
That hypocrisy undercut everything Ramaswamy had to say. He had several moments where he gave impassioned responses—in the very first question of the debate he did an effective job of differentiating between striking UAW workers and union bosses. However, his frankly cynical invocation of Ronald Reagan and the Eleventh Commandment deprived all of those responses of any rhetorical power. Because of his Eleventh Commandment invocations, Ramaswamy revealed himself to be a cynical opportunist.
That was a shame, because while Ron DeSantis was the only candidate who framed Ukraine in terms of ending the war, Ramaswamy was the only candidate willing to talk about Ukraine’s corruption and Zelensky’s rather authoritarian track record during the war. Support for Ukraine is hardly a crusade to preserve Western democracy, and Ramaswamy was the only candidate willing to acknowledge that. Had he merely not mentioned Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment he might have gained some traction with GOP voters who are opposed to supporting Ukraine in large part because Ukraine is so corrupt.
If other people watching the debate have the same reaction to Ramaswamy that I did, his political aspirations are over. Naked political opportunism just doesn’t look Presidential, and that sums up Ramaswamy’s debate performance last night: he just wasn’t (and isn’t) Presidential.
In one sense, Mike Pence just wasn’t there last night. Being there would have meant actually answering the questions that were asked, or at least making a show of trying to answer a question before launching into the eternal quest for soundbites.
When Ilia Calderon questioned Pence about what would happen to undocumented immigrants who are being allowed to remain and work in this country only because of Obama’s executive order-based DACA program, Pence rambled on about immigration in general but never actually answered her specific question about whether or not Mike Pence as President would work with Congress to address the question of so-called “DREAMers”. I cannot criticise Pence’ stance on this issue because he simply never stated it.
When the question about Obamacare arose, Pence rambled on about legislation to expedite executions in this country. Dana Perino quite correctly nailed him on his non-response, but never succeeded in getting Pence to stop talking around issues.
Pence might have the most executive political experience of any of the candidates on the stage last night, but he did not show anything that indicated he knew what to do with that experience. Pence showed yet again that he is more interested in defending his track record as Trump’s Vice President than he is in charting a course for the nation going forward. He continued his attempts from the first debate to suggest that, because of his experience, the other candidates were simply not worthy of being on the same stage as him; that condescending attitude I suspect proved to viewers yet again that Pence is the one demonstrably unworthy of being on that stage.
Tim Scott struggled again last night. He has not been able to break out of his Senatorial mindset. Even a question about executive experience he answered by highlighting his time on various Senate committees drafting legislation. While such experience might be helpful in understanding a number of political issues and how to work with the Congress, it is not executive experience.
His opening answer on the UAW strike also failed to make much distinction between the UAW workers and their union bosses. He also failed to point out that the US government has no role to play in private labor negotiations. If he meant to walk back his earlier comments about the striking UAW workers being fired, he did not do so.
Ramaswamy’s comments on the strike actually threw Scott a bone by attempting to reframe some of Scott’s position as being against the union heads themselves. Had Scott made that reframing himself he might have had a good answer.
Tim Scott’s worst moments came on the topic of Ukraine. As did a couple other candidates, he defended the idea that it was in America’s interests to “degrade Russia”. He all but conceded (and Dana Perino with her questioning largely confirmed) that the goal of the US and NATO in Ukraine is to degrade the Russian military. The candidates largely confirmed what I have said about NATO strategy in Ukraine before: NATO wants to attrit Russian military power by having Ukrainians do all the fighting and all the dying. Tim Scott supports the US supplying the cannons to use against Russian forces, while the Ukrainians supply the cannon fodder.
His passionate moments about the American dream might have made for decent soundbites, but they lacked any policy depth or substance.
In the end, Tim Scott sounded once again like a Senator, at a moment when he needed to sound like a President.
Chris Christie made it clear that his mission on that stage was to attack Donald Trump. Time and again, he criticized Trump for not showing up to the debates, while also going after the record of the Trump Presidency for increasing the size of the national debt, for not taking a more confrontational stance with Vladimir Putin and Russia, and arguably attempting to paint the Trump Presidency as a failed one. That is a depiction of Trump that might not play well with all Republican voters
Chris Christie also chose to defend support for Ukraine against Russia. Rightly or wrongly Christie thinks the US/NATO strategy in Ukraine is a good strategy and that Ukraine is the country wearing the white hats in that conflict. Given that there is substantial opposition to continued funding for Ukraine among GOP voters, Chris Christie failed to make the case that supporting a corrupt and quasi-authoritarian Ukraine is good US foreign policy. The ultimate question the candidates needed to answer on Ukraine was why that war needed to be America’s war. That policy defense was not heard last night.
Christie’s best moment came on the topic of abortion. His statement of “pro-life means for the entire life” not only has good soundbite potential, but he also followed it up with examples of how this country needs to be supportive of people throughout their lives—how there needs to be better mental health treatment and more support for people attempting to break away from their addictions in drug rehab. While as a committed libertarian I question the propriety of the government being involved in such efforts, I do applaud Christie’s willingness to at least address health and well being concerns that extend beyond the fetal stage of human life.
He also did a good job of pointing out that, historically, innovation creates jobs. It was a good rebuttal to the fear of many and articulated by the moderators that robots and AI are going to “steal” American’s jobs. As a broad economic theme, that was the right response.
Doug Burgum is without a doubt the most substantial of the candidates who were on the debate stage last night.
On the question of parental notification when children want to change their gender identity in school, Burgum was the only one who correctly pointed out that such issues are state rather than federal issues. He even gave Dana Perino a bit of a smackdown on that point.
Burgum also had a good moment late in the debate when he pointed out that most if not all of the policy proposals being advanced by the other candidates were already being implemented in North Dakota. “I’m already going that” and “North Dakota has already done that” are simple and solid defenses of his record as governor.
Unfortunately, Burgum again had to fight to be heard at all. Not only did the moderators largely ignore him so did the other candidates. Burgum appears to realize this, because straight away, on the first few questions of the night, he talked over the moderators and really browbeat them into letting him speak. Why he did it is understandable, but there’s no way to make a play like that and not come across as rude, obnoxious, and basically disrespectful.
Doug Burgum is clearly the most thoughtful candidate in the hunt for the GOP nomination, and arguably the most intelleigent. However, he is not the candidate who is going to win the nomination. He simply lacks the charisma that moves the needle on voter support.
And so the debate went. At times each candidate had something solid and substantial to say, but throughout the debate they repeatedly shouted each other down, they ignored the time clock, and they all but ignored the moderators remonstrances to behave better (at one point Dana Perino even threatened to turn off a candidate’s microphone). While each candidate could occasionally must a solid response, such moments were surrounded by endless moments of simply rude and obnoxious behavior.
One cannot hold a debate of any kind if one is not willing to pause long enough to let others answer. One cannot take a debate seriously if moderators are going to ask asinine questions such as “who do you think should be voted off the island.”
If this is how the GOP debates are gong to go, there is no point in having these debates at all. If the candidates are going to try to shout each other down, not let each other speak, and not have any respect for the moderators, there is no point to having these debates. If the moderators are going to ask foolish and superficial questions of no relevance to anything currently at the forefront of Americans’ political consciences there is no point to having these debates.
Trump’s decision to skip the debates looks even smarter after this second debate than it did after the first one. With the rest of the candidates dragging the debate down into a mud puddle of bad behavior, the way for a candidate to honor Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment was simply to not be there.
The GOP had better hope Trump does not lose the legal battles being fought to keep him off the ballot. These candidates showed last night that none of them can step up and fill Donald Trump’s political shoes come next November.
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