Talking heads have been analyzing who won last week’s GOP debate hosted by Fox News. I, on the other hand, had no problem at all picking a winner right away: It was the mastodon not in the room, Donald J. Trump (a.k.a. Prisoner No. P01135809).
It’s true. What was billed as the first GOP Presidential Debate actually could have been called the GOP Vice-Presidential Debate. And even as such, nobody on that stage came away a winner, with the possible exception of Nikki Haley, but only in terms of the debate, and certainly not in the primaries. In one of the most lackluster debates of its kind in history, what viewers mostly witnessed was a lot of bickering and schoolyard banter, and an utter dearth of substance regarding domestic and international policy.
Many commentators have tried to squeeze some differentiating plus out of the squabbling mess, but the best they’ve been able to do is claim former everything Nikki Haley stood her ground. But how much merit is there, when you’ve been a governor and UN ambassador, in coming out on top in a pillow fight with an absolutely inexperienced nobody like Vivek Ramaswamy?
I would have to give Haley points, however, for calling out her party (Trump’s party, actually, but she, like the others, was borrowing it for the debate) on the utter hypocrisy of their position on spending—which, could be summed up as, It’s okay when we do it, but not when Democrats do it.
More specifically, Haley said, “The truth is that Biden didn’t do this to us. Our Republicans did this to us too. When they passed that 2.2 trillion-dollar COVID stimulus bill, they left us with ninety million people on Medicaid, forty-two million people on food stamps.
“They need to stop the borrowing. They need to eliminate the earmarks that Republicans brought back in, and they need to make sure they understand these are taxpayer dollars.
“And while they’re all saying this, you have Ron DeSantis, you’ve got Tim Scott, you’ve got Mike Pence — they all voted to raise the debt [limit]. And Donald Trump added eight trillion to our debt. And our kids are never going to forgive us for this.
“And so, at the end of the day, you look at the 2024 budget. Republicans asked for 7.4 billion dollars in earmarks. Democrats asked for 2.8 billion. So, you tell me, who are the big spenders?”
This definitely places Haley on the moral high ground in the debate outcome, but it’s unlikely it will do much to endear her to her fellow party members—especially not the Washington leadership. She also called on her experience as UN ambassador to go after Ramaswamy’s simplistic view of Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression in Ukraine—to wit, that the US should stay out of it. Haley accused Ramaswamy of wanting to “hand Ukraine to Russia” and “let China eat Taiwan.”
“You are choosing a murderer over an ally of the US,” she said. “You have no foreign policy experience and it shows.” That statement got her a round of loud applause.
Other analysts tried to spin Ramaswamy’s performance as stellar. But if this were a boxing match and I were covering it, I’d have to report that all he managed to do all night was feint and cover, as he was tag-teamed by nearly all the other candidates.
Nor did the other candidates shine in their attacks on him, which were unworthy and disrespectful at best, and ad hominem and vaguely racist at worst. Two candidates who, in my opinion, seriously damaged their own images in their rabid verbal assaults on Vivek were former Vice-President Mike Pence and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
About all that Pence has going for him is his “evangelical”-based governorship in Indiana, and the fact that he served as vice-president of the United States, since he is a remarkably unimpressive and indecisive politician. Throughout his entire four-year term as VP, he limited his performance to being a yes-man for Donald Trump, never showing any character of his own and failing to call out his boss’s bad behavior, even when it crossed the line into uncharted and possibly felonious waters. Pence’s one shining moment was when, in his role as Senate President, he for once, and crucially, refused to give the president’s bad conduct a pass, and, as it turned out, risked his life in defiance of Trump’s mob, by carrying congressional certification of the presidential election Trump lost to fruition. But afterward, even after it became clear that the former president’s reckless behavior had put his life and those of other members of Congress in mortal danger, Pence remained wishy-washy in his placement of blame where it belonged until he had already launched his own campaign for the presidency.
But despite all that, all has been forgiven for Pence in both the old-time Republican and moderate Democratic camps, since he has been touted as “a hero of democracy” for, basically, doing the job he was morally and legally obliged to do under the Constitution, instead of joining his boss’s criminal conspiracy to virtually overthrow the established order and remain in power as a de facto president.
It would have been wise for Pence, who is one of the blandest politicians in history, to have basked in his former VP status and remained above the fray in the debate, concentrating on grass-roots conservative policy and on separating himself from Trump instead of on engaging in head-butting and eye-gouging with the most inexperienced candidate on the stage. He could have provided an example for others by treating all candidates with equal respect, debating on substance rather than personality. But that was clearly too much to ask of a man who appears never to have had an original idea in his life.
Pence, who has an obviously naïve idea of today’s United States “conservatism”, still sees his party as the party of Eisenhower and Reagan and allowed himself to be goaded by Ramaswamy’s ironic tone when the young candidate sought to remind him that today’s climate is no longer the one Pence recalled from the past. The US, Ramaswamy pointed out, was in the grip of a national identity crisis. Pence came back with his “Mr. Rogers” view of the country, saying, “We’re not looking for a new national identity. The American people are the most faith-filled, freedom-loving, idealistic, hard-working people the world has ever known.”
Innocent though many of us may find that church-bulletin, blue-sky view of a troubled nation, it is indeed what sells among Pence’s natural conservative peers—white, Middle-American people of fifty-plus grown weary of the drama, who would like nothing as much as to return to “the good old postwar fifties.” Pence is unlikely to find support among radical Trumpsters who consider him a traitor to their personality cult, nor is he likely to attract young and up-and-coming Republicans who think all “boomers” should go home to tend their flower gardens and leave straightening out the mess the world is in to the people who are going to have to live in it for decades to come. So it would have made sense for him to stick to his good-ol’-days narrative, since he clearly has no idea what contemporary “conservatives” are looking for, nor does he care. He apparently thinks the young should listen to their elders and re-found a Reaganite America under his leadership.
Vivek wasn’t buying it. He said—in a disparaging reference to a Reagan era slogan—“It is not ‘morning in America’. We live in a dark moment. And we have to confront the fact that we’re in an internal sort of cold, cultural civil war.”
Pence could have gained points by calmly and cogently explaining how, in his view, what was wrong with conservatism today was precisely that it wasn’t the conservatism of Reagan, but had instead taken a sharp turn toward right-wing extremism. But he chose instead to dismiss the other candidate’s view on the sole grounds of his youth, saying, “Now is not the time for on-the job training. We don’t need to bring in a rookie.”
His belittling of Ramaswamy tended to indicate that he was dismissing him because he saw him as a credible threat. That gave Ramaswamy more importance than he merited. Pence had a chance to continue “schooling” the thirty-eight-year-old candidate and gave it up to schoolyard banter, rendering him, “just some guy” on the stage instead of the only one with somewhat presidential credentials.
Chris Christie, for his part, also decided to surrender his “experience advantage” by launching the same sort of ad hominem attack as Pence did on Ramaswamy. The former New Jersey governor probably did a lot to boost Vivek in the polls by seeking to dismiss him, saying, “I’ve had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT standing up here. And the last person in one of these debates…who stood in the middle of the stage and said, ‘What’s a skinny guy with an odd last name doing up here?’ was Barack Obama. And I’m afraid we’re dealing with the same type of amateur.”
By saying that instead of slamming Vivek on things he needed to be slammed on—like his incredibly surreal assertions that climate change was “a hoax”, that more people were dying because of anti-climate-change policies than because of climate change, that racism was a thing of the past and that white supremacists in America were as rare as unicorns—Christie employed the peevish “young whippersnapper” defense, which lacked substance.
Had Christie left it there, at least, he would only have been shooting himself in the foot with something smaller than a double-barreled twelve-gauge. But the comparison to Obama and the “amateur” status of both him and Ramaswamy was way over the top. Vivek is basically a nobody, no matter what he might end up being in the future, while Obama, no matter what far-right Republicans and their white-supremacist cousins might think of him, remains ranked by presidential historians as one of the most popular presidents of the postwar era, listing on a footing with such names as Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.
It made Christie look weak, defensive, clueless, and even slightly racist. It is one thing for men of color like Obama and Ramaswamy to refer to themselves as “skinny guys with funny last names,” but quite another for a white guy to do it. Especially when it was a backhanded attack on a highly popular and respected leader—the first non-white ever elected to the presidency—for whom many people voted across party lines in both presidential terms that he served. Moreover, it was tantamount to throwing a jab but leaving his guard down for the hard uppercut Ramaswamy delivered when he responded, “Give me a hug just like you did to Obama, and you’ll help elect me just like you did to Obama.”
In all fairness, both Christie and former Alabama Governor Asa Hutchinson were addressing a hostile crowd. As the only two who are dead set against Trump’s ever again being a GOP presidential candidate, they were setting themselves up to get booed by the clearly overwhelming majority of Trump apologists in the live audience. As two of the three lowest candidates on the totem pole, they would clearly have done well to be prepared to let their listeners judge them on policies, not their politics. Alas, they didn’t.
The other fellow who barely made the stage, North Dakota Governor and gazillionaire businessman Doug Burgum, ensured his continued anonymity—to make the forty thousand donor tally he needed to join the debate, he reportedly offered a twenty-dollar gift certificate to anybody who would donate a dollar to his campaign—with his non-performance. In fairness to Burgum, however, he really was not prepared for a political brawl. His whole campaign is based on energy strategies to strengthen the US in the face of rising aggression from China and Russia. He probably figured there would be some segue that would permit him to expound on that, but there wasn’t, so he ended up looking like he had nothing to say.
Nor4 did Tim Scott get a chance to tout the conservative policy logic that separates him from Donald Trump—or, thus, a chance to move the popularity needle further in his favor. But I blame Scott himself for that, as I have from the outset, since he has refused to go after Trump in any meaningful way, which makes him look weak and acquiescent.
Unfortunately, Scott is not alone in that regard. And that was where the debate, across the board, demonstrated itself to be more vice-presidential than presidential. Ramaswamy, for instance, may have gotten noticed—more by being obnoxious than for any other reason—but in answer to one of the questions asked, he said that Trump was “the best president of the twenty-first century.” The natural follow-up question for the Fox moderators to have asked should have been, “So, why the hell are you running against him?” But they failed to ask it.
I think I know the answer to the unasked query. At thirty-eight, I figure Ramaswamy is running to get noticed, since he has no political credentials. The main person he is trying to impress, I feel, is Donald Trump, since there is essentially no difference between his running platform and Trump’s. A successful businessman, he probably feels his profile will appeal more to a man like Trump than a politician’s. So it would make sense that he would hope to be Trump’s vice-presidential pick. Being VP to Trump, should Trump get another four years—in the White House rather than in prison—could give a man as young as Vivek the street cred he would need to run for president in the future, or at least that might well be his calculation.
The big loser of the night was Ron DeSantis. Believing his own campaign’s hype about how he was going to be receiving “all of the incoming” in the debate, as holder of the distant second spot to Donald Trump, he ended up seeming to be at a total loss for anything else to do, when, surprisingly, all fire from the other candidates appeared to be focused on Ramaswamy. The Florida governor, not at all his usual brash and boastful self, spent a lot of time looking like a deer in headlights. The only time he really came to life was when Fox News moderator Brett Baier put a Trump question to him and he bristled, asking if the debate was going to be about Trump or the future. Trump, he indicated, wasn’t relevant. Baier bristled right back and indicated that with Trump’s voter intention rating running at least twenty points higher than anyone else’s on the stage, he was clearly relevant, whether DeSantis liked it or not.
Not only did DeSantis, to his discredit, hem and haw and waffle when he was later asked if Mike Pence had done the right thing in certifying the 2020 election on January 6th 2021, but he also proved just how true Trump’s relevance was when all candidates were asked to raise their hand if they would vote for Trump, assuming he was the candidate, even if he had been convicted of a felony. The Florida governor looked left and looked right to see what everybody else was doing and belatedly raised his hand (as did Pence). It was a chance for him to definitively separate himself from Trump, and he blew it.
In total, six of the eight candidates on stage raised their hands—in doing so, Nikki Haley undid all of her refreshing earlier disqualifying criticism of Trump—thus demonstrating that Trump still owns the GOP, since not even his rivals for the presidency will throw him under the bus completely, even if he is a convicted felon. Chris Christie timidly raised a finger (had it been the middle one it might have been taken as a no, but it wasn’t), but later reneged, saying he wouldn’t vote for Trump. “Someone," said Christie, “has to stop normalizing this conduct.” A response that was met with loud booing from the audience. The only candidate who left no doubt about his position was former Governor Hutchinson, who made no move to look at other candidates to see what they were doing, or to raise his hand.
With that single exception, it was a moment in the debate that continued to put Trump above the law. Never did Trump’s controversial statement in the 2016 campaign to the effect that he could “shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and not lose any votes” seem more apropos. In the end, then, Trump won the debate hands down without being there and the other eight demoted themselves, from the outset, to “also-ran” status, in their failure to cut the umbilical cord to the Trump base and to start reaching out to the other sixty-plus percent of Republican voters.