Despite their differences in background, philosophy, and style, the eight candidates who took the stage in Milwaukee last night have one important thing in common. None of them are going to be elected President of United States in 2024.
The Republican debate in Milwaukee last night was surprisingly raucous, but in a strange, puzzling, and utterly illogical way.
Conventional wisdom is that the front runner in a campaign is the one who draws the most attacks. It’s just common sense: if you are behind, you have to take down the person in the lead. Everyone takes shots at the leader, right?
Well, if you believe that common sense wisdom and watched the debate, you would have concluded that a wide-eyed whack job named Vivek Ramaswamy was far and away the leading candidate for the Republican nomination. Ramaswamy, who comes off like a glib, spoiled college freshman super-pumped for pledge week, was pummeled from every corner of the stage. He was rightly savaged by Nikky Haley for his vintage Neville Chamberlain foreign policy views. Mike Pence repeatedly castigated him as an amateur and a lightweight. Christie and Pence ripped into him for his promise to pardon Trump.
But, uh, no. Vivek Ramaswamy did not go into this debate as the front-runner, not by some 30 to 40 points in the polls. He was the easy target, not the right target.
Donald Trump is the guy who actually is up by some 30 to 40 points in the polls, and he was, of course, nowhere near the stage for the first debate of the 2024 Republican Primary season on Wednesday night in Milwaukee. But only one person on the stage took him on, and Chris Christie was literally drowned out by a booing crowd for doing so.
Just as crazy: in the absence of Trump, the next logical target of attacks should have been the person with the highest polling numbers who was actually on the stage – Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. He, however, was virtually ignored by his competitors. It was a bad night for Meatball Ron.
So the headline for the first Republican debate is that it was an evening of sound and fury, signifying nothing. You may see polling numbers go up for Pence, Haley, and Christie – perhaps two points, maybe three. Ramaswamy probably scared Republicans with his constant wildly goofy grin and his raving theories about why the United States should abandon Ukraine and Taiwan, and he will lose a few points. DeSantis, grumpy and largely irrelevant, may lose ground, too.
But the only thing that the first Republican debate proved is that Donald Trump can win this nomination by literally doing nothing.
Absolutely nothing that happened last night will loosen the hammerlock Trump has on some 35 to 40% of Republicans, who didn’t abandon Trump when he tried to shoot democracy on Fifth Avenue. Nothing changed last night except the locations of the deck chairs on the Titanic. Perhaps one of these candidates will end up getting a gig on FOX, or else the evening was a completely unproductive waste of time.
The bet here is that Donald Trump’s polling numbers do not move a micron as a result of last night’s debate. And that means the evening was a huge win for Donald Trump.
It was, indeed, a tale told by idiots who think they are going to overtake Donald Trump by beating up Vivek Ramaswamy.
Pundits will eagerly point out that Mike Pence performed very well in the debate. He did: Mike Pence looked Presidential, which is pretty cool for a guy who was actually Vice President for four years and never once looked Presidential then. He spoke with gravitas and power, and delivered some of the evening’s most memorable lines. Pence seemed to enjoy toying with the nutty Ramaswamy, referring to him disdainfully as a “rookie.” And, yes, Pence did say that Donald Trump had instructed him to not follow the Constitution. It is remarkable that we need to praise him for that.
But every second that Mike Pence wasted on trashing Ramaswamy was a missed opportunity to ask his party to rethink their death-grip embrace of Donald Trump.
Nikki Haley was razor sharp. She came out of the gate saying that “no one is telling the truth,” and proceeded to jar the audience by acknowledging that a Republican administration had contributed heavily to the surging national debt. Haley deftly navigated the fractious issue of abortion bans with a plea that Republicans stop demonizing the issue, and advocating positions that are reasoned compromises. Haley skillfully trashed every rival on the stage by invoking Margaret Thatcher’s famous observation that “if you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.”
But, like Pence, Haley did not take her exhortation to tell the truth to its logical conclusion and go after Donald Trump. She, too, saved her harshest and loudest condemnation for Ramaswamy when she savaged his proposed appeasement of Putin in Ukraine. “You have no experience in foreign policy, and it shows.” Zing!
Only Chris Christie stood up and said that “regardless of what you think about the legality of Trump’s actions,” someone had to “stop normalizing the conduct.” He went on to say that Trump’s “conduct is beneath the level of the office.”
Chris Christie may have a noble intent, but he happens to be a terrible messenger. In a new Des Moines Register/NBC News/ Mediacom Iowa poll published Monday, Christie has a mind-blowing 60% “unfavorable” rating. That’s probably a higher number than the Ken dolls in the “Barbie” movie.
And yet Christie forged ahead in a mission that is either full-on kamikaze or the only strategy with the slightest chance of actually taking down Trump.
He did land a few hard punches, but with Trump nowhere to be seen, the impact of those zingers was neutralized.
His reward for calling out Trump’s behavior as “beneath the level of the office” -- a simple recitation of reality – was that the Republicans in the hall showered Christie with catcalls and boos. The boos rose to a decibel level where Christie was drowned out. FOX moderator Brett Baier made the extraordinary gesture of turning and admonishing the audience.
But that moment is really all you need to know about today’s Republican Party. Chris Christie was making a fair and, in fact, wildly understated point: that Trump’s conduct is beneath the dignity of the office.
But today’s Republican Party cannot handle the truth.
And most of the Republican Party Presidential aspirants are afraid to take Trump on. They, too, cannot accept that they must take Trump down in order to allow the party to move on from him. They cannot handle the truth.
And poor Chris Christie… he seems to genuinely believe that if Republicans really, finally, totally, and emphatically got the facts, they would dump Trump and follow the truthteller. Newsflash, Chris: Today’s Republican Party can’t handle the truth.
The Republicans on the stage last night let a golden opportunity slip through their fingers. Donald Trump was not there to defend himself. The first debate often has among the highest ratings of the entire campaign cycle. The first debate gives the anonymous a chance to make a name, it gives those with weak showings to date a chance for a re-set. It is solid gold for those who have the guts to seize the moment.
But no one seized the moment.
The bottom line: none of the candidates on the stage did much to change the ingoing mojo. And that is bad news for a party that is hurtling toward nominating a four-times indicted, twice impeached, twice defeated in the popular vote, and soundly humiliated in the 2020 and 2022 election cycles as their Presidential candidate for the third time in a row. It is a party hell-bent on ignoring Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity.
With Pence, Haley, and Christie as the stand-outs, who lost ground?
Clearly Vivek Ramaswamy had a bruising night, but the 38-year-old tech entrepreneur did not have that much to lose. It’s not like he made any terrible gaffes or errors – he simply clearly articulated terrible policies. Ramaswamy has been characterized as the supposed Republican answer to Pete Buttigieg: he was billed as a young, telegenic, silkily imperturbable outsider who speaks in full paragraphs and artfully reframes questions to make his counter-intuitive arguments seem the only logical answer. Rivek, you are no Pete Buttigieg. Where Mayor Pete is cool, calm, and in command, Ramaswamy was hot, uncontrolled, rude, arrogant, and petulant. Perhaps the people who are into his extreme rhetoric will stick with him. But he is destined to become an answer to a trivia question ranking the biggest Republican party flame-outs, probably somewhere between Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee.
But the biggest loser? Ron DeSantis.
Perhaps for more than any other candidate, the Milwaukee debate could be viewed as critically important to DeSantis, as his campaign has been flailing, failing, faltering, and fumbling pretty much since he announced his candidacy. In the months since he announced, DeSantis has actually lost ground to Trump during a period in which Trump was served with four indictments.
Worse: days before the debate, leaked documents from Ron DeSantis’ own super PAC showered him with advice about how to handle key questions and how to carry himself on the stage. Taken in sum, the PAC’s input to DeSantis appeared to be saying, “you obviously have no clue how to behave as a candidate, so we have resorted to scripting you so you don’t blow it.”
DeSantis was urged by the Super PAC to defend the absent Trump on the one hand, signaling his weakness relative to Trump, and to viciously attack Vivek Ramaswamy, indicating that he feared being knocked out of the number two spot in the polls by a political novice. A particularly bad sign for DeSantis: his own people felt a need to remind him to talk about his wife and children and – yes, this is a direct quote – “show emotion.” It is DeSantis’ problem in a nutshell: Chat GPT has more warmth and emotional intelligence than the Florida governor.
More than any other candidate, DeSantis repeatedly dodged giving direct answers to simple “yes or no” questions. At one point, Pence cowed DeSantis into admitting that Pence had made the right decision in not acceding to Donald Trump’s demands that he not attempt to overturn the 2020 election. Pence made DeSantis look weak.
One of the most effective techniques used by the Fox moderators was to request a show of hands – yes or no – on key issues. Baier used this technique to challenge the candidates “if Donald Trump is convicted in a court of law, would you still support him as your party’s choice?” DeSantis raised his hand well after the others… making him appear a meek lemming following the crowd.
DeSantis had his moments, but the worst part of his night was the degree to which he was ignored. He appeared to be the gawky, awkward kid who isn’t picked for the touch football game, standing on the sidelines while the cool kids mixed it up. He was upstaged by the surprisingly aggressive Pence and Haley, and his range of expression was trapped in a narrow range from snide to sour to obnoxious to contemptuous, and consistently landed on odious. DeSantis seems to think that debating is an exercise in projectile testosterone, and appeared most comfortable when he had the chance to talk about the things he can kill, expel, or destroy as President. The man has never once learned the winning grace of self-deprecating humor. Ron DeSantis is where warmth goes to die.
Tim Scott’s performance was lackluster and unmemorable. He was the most robotic performer, instantly defaulting to rote, scripted answers. While Pence, Ramaswamy, Haley, and Christie jumped into the fray of ferocious real-time arguments, Scott seemed to disappear into the background when the action got heated. It may not be fair, but in televised debates, nice guys finish last.
North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, who scammed his way onto the debate stage by offering $20 gift cards in exchange for campaign contributions of any size, did nothing to create any semblance of energy or momentum. He seemed at times to be a man who had accidentally wandered onto the wrong tv set and was as puzzled as everyone else as to why he was there.
And poor Asa Hutchinson. The former Arkansas governor’s finest moment was when he refused to raise his hand when asked if he would vote for Trump if he was nominated and a convicted felon. Other than that, he may as well have been part of the background you created for your Zoom calls during Covid.
When the clock struck 10:00 Central Standard Time, the sound and the fury was over, and the tale told by idiots indeed signified nothing.
The, ah, real truth is that MAGA Republicans couldn’t care less what the truth may or may not be. It is irrelevant. MAGA Republicans are marching in goose-step lock-step to their leader's command. It remains a most exquisite irony that Donald Trump gained national fame as the host of a reality television show, because his greatest imprint to the national Republican Party is an utter inability to deal with reality.
As Jack Nicholson might put it, Republicans can’t handle the truth. The rank and file reject it, and the leaders are too cowardly to speak it.
As for Donald Trump: any debate he can avoid with impunity is a good move. When last seen on a debate stage in the 2020 election cycle, Trump horribly bungled the infamous “POTUS Interruptus” debate, displaying appalling rudeness as he shouted over Joe Biden and the moderators.
What we learned in Milwaukee last night is that the dense pack of closely-rated candidates pursuing Donald Trump is the reason Donald Trump will win the nomination. The overnight poll of winners and losers could show some small bumps for Mike Pence and Nikki Haley, and it could show a two or three-point decline for Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy.
Which is to say: this debate was small ball. Tiny shifts that don’t amount to much. No one emerged with the power to unify the party and take on Trump.
The top tier candidates all fear Donald Trump so much that none of them will swing for the fences to bring him down, and now they will point to Chris Christie’s failed charge of the light brigade to justify continuing their tepid, milquetoast, cowardly non-campaigns.
But one number is not going to change: the percentage of Republicans who support Donald Trump.
Thanks to Donald Trump, Republicans can’t handle the truth.
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