The clown car that is the Republican presidential nomination came to Milwaukee last night, sans Bozo. As a result, the clowns clowned away but the big larfs were few and far between.
Eight clowns entered and eight clowns exited two hours later. In the interim, there were stretches of boredom punctuated by regular descents into the hyperpolarized subterranean crazy (where so many Republicans live in these MAGA days), and by a few sharp, revealing, and somewhat entertaining exchanges.
The debate picked up speed as it went on, and out of the muddle there were some clear takeaways:
- The moderation from Brett Baier and Martha McCallum was competent and relaxed. Some of the questions seemed needlessly convoluted – the first one was something mystifying about “Bidenomics” vs. “Rich Men North of Richmond;” Chris Christie understandably complained when he got a dumb clunker of a question about UFOs – but they got around to asking questions that unearthed some interesting differences between the candidates. Also, I thought they did a good job making sure each of the eight got chances to make their case.
- Fairly early in, Nikki Haley got in the first Trump dis, but it was pretty tepid, a passing reference in a mini-screed she launched against the Republican Establishment (last time I checked, she’s a card carrying member) for being fiscally irresponsible during COVID; Trump added $8 trillion to the national debt, she mentioned. Still, by wrapping a Trump attack in a blast against spendthrift party elites, who are reflexively despised by the rank and file, she actually got some applause from the audience. Smart play, and the beginning of a decently good night for her.
- 46 minutes into the debate, and Haley’s minor dis was still the only Trump reference. There was more Trump fireworks later, but at this point I was thinking, “these losers deserve to be dominated by Trump, and they will be.”
- Finally, the moderators brought up Trump, setting off some of the most clarifying exchanges. They asked: will you support Trump as the nominee if he’s convicted of a serious crime? Chris Christie, who (as Vivek Ramaswamy later pointed out) is running more of a Trump revenge tour than an actual presidential campaign, pounced, saying that whatever Republican voters think of the indictments, Trump’s behavior was beneath the presidency. Vivek immediately jumped in to counter Christie and defend Trump – Trump was a great president! – initiating the main dynamic of the night: when other candidates said anything negative about Trump, Vivek carried the former president’s water, successfully making himself the Trump MAGA surrogate on the stage last night.
- In his role as the Trump mini-me — he knows he’s not going to win, and he clearly really want that VP nomination – Vivek delivered many of the best lines of the night. And by best, I mean MAGA red meat over-the-top craziest. “It’s not morning in America [right now],” he shouted, implicitly dissing Ronald Regan legacy as the province of naïve fools and Democrat-loving RINOs. “Drill, frack, burn coal and embrace nuclear!,” he shouted earlier. “The climate change agenda is a hoax!” he shouted later (twice), asserting that everyone else on the stage was too bought and paid for by corporate interests to admit this glaringly obvious truth. At one point he made the bizarre argument that sending money to Ukraine means you support open borders and crime in Chicago and Philly.
- Everybody Doesn’t Love Vivek! As Ramaswamy turned himself into the ultra MAGA Trump proxy, he began to take all the incoming fire everyone thought would be directed at DeSantis. Not just over Trump, but his embrace of Trump’s MAGA America First nationalism and isolationism drew heated (and effective, another good moment for her) fire from former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, who hammered him as a clueless, inexperienced foreign policy naif who wants to coddle Putin and cut funding for Israel. Others went after him too at various points – Pence too got a little heated over Ramaswamy rejection of traditional Reagan Republican “we need peace through strength!” foreign policy nostrums – but Vivek relished the conflict. We need Russia, he said, and Haley and Pence want to start a no-win war.
- Ron DeSantis, he of the floundering distant second campaign, had a few moments where he delivered his far-right talking points effectively – Florida is apparently paradise on earth since he made it the place “where woke goes to die” – eliciting cheers from his contingent of fans in the audience. But he disappeared for too many stretches in the debate, and while he got in his lines, Ramaswamy stole most of what was supposed to be his MAGA thunder. He was not part of the most memorable and heated moments of the night. Plus he has a naturally whiny voice, and when he uses it to express his whiny agenda, it was like fingernails across a chalkboard for me. Maybe it works for Republicans, I dunno, but my takeaway was that if this guy somehow gets the nomination he is not going to be a very appealing general election candidate.
Okay, now for the punch lines. Here’s my take on how each of the candidates performed last night, arranged from worst to best performance:
Doug Burgum – who is this guy again, and why is he here? He wants to be the president of a town with 300 people in it and will ride a horse toward distant horizons if elected, or something. Dude was nervous, boring, and irrelevant. He’s Mitt Romney with longer hair. Stick a fork in him, he’s done.
Asa Hutchinson – He seems like a decent, principled (and very conservative) man, which makes him a terrible fit for today’s Republican Party. His disgust with Trump’s violation of basic norms of human decency is palpable, which is doubly disqualifying. Plus he talks too slow and, despite his best efforts to grab this mantle, no, he’s not the second coming of Ronald Reagan.
Chris Christie – He’s entertainingly blunt, willing to mix it up and dish it out, and is running as a two-fisted brawler and truth teller, particularly about Trump and his toxicity. Which means he got booed lustily at several points during the debate. It’s obvious Republicans apparently hate him as much as he hates Trump (and last night, mini-me Vivek), but other than that he did great.
Mike Pence – It hit me early on that Mike Pence is not a human being, he’s an android. In fact, for some reason he strongly reminded me of that android character in the first Alien move. Android Mike got a little better, and more animated, as the debate went on, but he’s still an android who worships a life-size cardboard cutout of Jesus, and supposedly calls his wife “Mother,” so no, he’s not going to ever get elected president of the United States.
Tim Scott – With his star rising recently, there were high expectations for Scott going into this debate. He failed to live up to them. He went surprisingly hard right in some of his answers, giving them a partisan edge that cut against his image as the Reagan “City on a Hill” optimist. Yeah, I’ll grant he flashed a big smile at times as he pledged allegiance to right-wing batshittery, but still. Underwhelming performance.
Ron DeSantis – DeSantis really needed to dominate this debate to reestablish himself as the clear Trump alternative, turning it back into the two person race the media assumed this would be after last year’s midterms. He didn’t come remotely close to achieving this. He missed most of the big fights. Stuck to his script and sounded predictable. Yeah, he’s very MAGA, but he’s not Ultra MAGA like Vivek.
Nikki Haley – The only woman on the stage, Haley scored some points with her faux girrrl power bon mots, and as mentioned she scored further points bitch slapping Ramaswamy on foreign policy. One of the sub-plots of this nomination battle is over which of the non-MAGA candidates will capture the mantle of the traditional Reagan Republicanism, and last night she grabbed it from Asa, Android Mike, Doug, Chris et al.
Vivek Ramaswamy – If he set out to prove that if Trump asks him (and even if he doesn’t) to bow down before him and kiss his feet he’ll happily do it, well, then, mission accomplished. The audience seemed to like his shamelessly obsequious fawning over Trump, and his willing to gleefully defend the crazy edge of MAGA extremism. He’ll never be president, but he’s emerged as the mirror image Republican version of ’20 Pete Buttigieg. Smart, glib, young, a fresh-faced newbie, preternaturally poised and self-confident, a hall monitor commissar of MAGA orthodoxy with a natural gift for messaging who can make even the most controversial ideas seem vaguely reasonable. After last night, Trump’s inability to pronounce his last name is the only thing that still stands between him and the vice presidential nomination.
And ding ding ding… the big winner of the debate was… Donald J. Trump. Of course. Same as it ever was. The clown car will roll on next to the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, but (god help us) nothing that happened last night put a dent in his dominance of this race.