Fast becoming tiny, receding dots in Donald Trump’s rear-view mirror, some Republicans running for the GOP nomination finally realized that the time had come to take on Trump directly. But the headline is simple: while the Republicans had a feisty debate, most everyone simply held serve. That means that no one stood out… so once again, Trump wins.
Among the many enjoyable moments of the Barbie movie was the opening, the sweet riff on “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Each film depicted a moment at which a great milestone of insight has been achieved, signaling a monumental sea change in human history. Kubrick focused on the idea that bones could be weapons, “Barbie” on the idea that dolls did not need to be babies. Only time will tell which one was humanity’s bigger game-changer.
On a far tinier scale on Wednesday night, we saw several Republican candidates finally realize that if they didn’t start to point their artillery directly at Donald Trump, they were all destined to become footnotes in a Wikipedia entry about the 2024 election. Ah, dawn of realization! Grand insight!
In the first debate of the season last month, the Republicans assiduously avoided Trump altogether, preferring to launch broadsides at each other, which was a bit like what would have happened if Eisenhower had decided to launch D-Day against, say, Uruguay or perhaps the Galapagos – sure, there would have been far less risk, but then again not much progress would be made toward the real goal.
But there’s nothing like an avalanche of stunningly bad news from political polls to wake the wannabees. A new NBC News national poll showed Trump at 59%. Next? Ron DeSantis at 16%. Then Nikki Haley at 7% -- but at least she gained. She was up from 4% in August.
Last night, some Republicans realized that time was running out to stop Trump, so they finally decided to go after him. But still, they did not attack hard enough.
There’s nothing new in Chris Christie taking direct shots at Trump. The surprising news is that this time nobody in the audience booed or hissed when he did.
Bigger news: Ron DeSantis and Nikky Haley each launched incoming at Trump. Three candidates – DeSantis, Haley, and Christie – blamed Trump for adding seven trillion dollars to the national debt. Nikki Haley ripped into Trump for what she considered to be his naïve policies toward China. DeSantis and Christie castigated Trump for not showing up to debate: Christie got in a great one-liner, dissing Trump as “Donald Duck.” Christie laughed and pointed out that Trump built only fifty miles of border wall, noting that “if Mexico knew we were only going to build that much, they probably would have paid for it.”
But it was nowhere near enough. In fact, there was an astonishing irony in that the Republicans on the stage each took turns throughout the night talking about the vital need for “law and order” -- that it should be enforced on the southern border, that we must support our police to reduce the carnage in our cities, that we must fight the war on fentanyl by enforcing “law and order.”
And yet no one -- not even Chris Christie, who repeatedly made points about his “law and order” creds as a prosecutor in New Jersey – could see the irony. None could bring themselves to mention that their party should not nominate a candidate who is fighting damning criminal indictments, who trash-talks Federal judges and prosecutors, and who led an insurrection that resulting in death and injury to the very police they claim to support.
Ah, the party of law and order is terrified to admit that they don’t really stand for law and order. And Donald Trump once again skated away, again skipping a debate with impunity.
All seven of the candidates put in respectable performances. There were no home runs, but there were no gaffes. No individual broke out of the pack. No candidate performed so poorly that they will feel pressure to drop out. And that brings us to the groundhog déjà vu of Wednesday night: once again the debate helped Donald Trump.
Donald Trump has been employing what campaign historians call a “Rose Garden Strategy.” It is when incumbent Presidents lay low and make like they are too busy attending to the nation’s business to engage in the tawdry slog of campaigning. In that Donald Trump never conceded losing the 2020 election, it makes sense that he thinks he is an incumbent President. And his huge lead in the polling justifies his decision to ignore the debates. Until somebody gains serious ground on him, he has no reason to debate – but much to lose.
That’s the problem. Everyone knows that the only way the Republicans can avoid another nomination of Donald Trump is if one candidate breaks out of the pack, seriously erodes Trump’s polling lead, and turns the campaign into a two-person race in which the “anti-Trump” sentiment can coalesce behind a single candidate.
And that did not happen last night.
In fact, all the candidates upped their games relative to the August food fight.
Ron DeSantis had a reasonably good night. He can’t help but be smarmy, smug, and self-satisfied – that’s who he is – but he was cooler, more even, and less inclined to get into tit-for-tats with his opponents. He jumped at the chance on his very first response to criticize Trump for failing to participate in the debate. He said Trump was “missing in action,” and told the audience that Trump had a responsibility to be on the stage and “defend his record.” He would return to the theme again at the end of the night when asked about abortion: “the former president should be here to defend his comments.”
DeSantis had a particularly good moment right at the end, when Fox moderator Dana Perino attempted to literally turn what had been a serious debate into a reality tv show: for her last question, she wanted each candidate to name one person on the stage who should be “voted off the island.” It was DeSantis who spoke first and for the group, dismissing the question brusquely, clearly conveying that it was beneath the dignity of the candidates. In that moment, DeSantis looked good.
Throughout the evening, DeSantis aggressively marketed his tenure as governor of Florida as proof of his ability to implement a conservative agenda. Most important: he seemed to be disciplined about not being agitated or put on the defensive when attacked by others.
But of all the candidates on the stage, DeSantis needed to be more than just good. His campaign has been in free fall since it began, and he needed an unambiguous, resounding win in this debate to regain the momentum he once held as the most viable alternative to Trump. DeSantis did not fundamentally change the game last night. The bottom line on his performance: good… but not good enough.
Even as some candidates tried to focus the debate on Trump, too much time was wasted in petty screaming matches between the people on the stage. Indeed, it appeared that Fox literally turned down the microphones when multiple people spoke, and muffled the mics of people who were trying to interrupt. All for naught: after a polite first half-hour, the food fights began.
Nikki Haley, of all people, may have been the been the biggest offender. Her measured, human, and reasoned approach in the August debate had proven to be a winning formula, but on Wednesday night she inexplicably chose to change stripes and initiate aggressive one-on-one side-shows with each of Vivek Ramaswamy (“Every time I hear you speak, I feel a little dumber from what you say… we can’t trust you”), DeSantis, and even her gentle pal from South Carolina, Tim Scott. Haley was her usual forceful and charismatic presence, but the optics were not great… it looked like she spent the evening picking nasty little fights rather than rising above the fray. It’s hard to see how Haley gained any ground last night.
Surely someone must have told Tim Scott that his strategy in the first debate – laying low, staying out of the skirmishes, and reciting milquetoast talking points by rote –– had to change if he was going to make any headway in the polls. Last night’s all-new Tim Scott was more pumped up, more involved, and livelier – but he never once criticized Trump. There may be method to his madness. Scott knows that Trump will demand that his VP be an aggressive fighter and 100% loyal to Trump. Tim may be just playing the long game, raising his profile as a scrapper without roiling MAGA world or criticizing Trump… leaving him perfectly positioned for Trump’s VP slot. If anybody gained ground last night, it was Tim Scott. But it was not enough to change the mojo of the campaign.
Ah, Vivak Ramiswami, the Trump mini-me tsunami, came into the debate still fresh from the microscopic bounce he got from being a glowing, glowering, glob of glib in the first debate. He seemed eager to repeat the formula, coming out swinging, speaking at the elevated velocity of a used car salesman’s closing pitch. Ramaswamy is the only candidate other than Trump himself who understands that more than anything, the MAGA world wants to be entertained. They want their intolerance, bigotry, and anti-government bile to come packaged in slick, insulting, wildly exaggerated soundbytes. Ramaswamy understands that these are not debates… it’s just the new season of America’s Got Anger!
Back in August, Ramaswamy was the shiny new object, and was the primary focus of the after-debate buzz, but he was dinged for being too disrespectful to his fellow candidates. Last night he tried to roll out Vivek 2.0, a kinder and gentler wing-nut (“I respect everyone on the stage!”). But to little benefit: he was pilloried by Haley, Pence, and Scott for his reckless and naïve appeasement to Putin on Ukraine, and he spent the evening on his heels, often retreating, sounding whiny and tinny. Too many of his answers attempted to reduce complex problems to simplistic answers – every problem would be solved by getting the economy rolling – and his constant big stupid grin undercut any impression of gravitas. Hey, if you buy into Ramaswamy, nothing last night would change that… but his days as the would-be messiah are over.
In August, Mike Pence surprised one and all with a startlingly forceful presence. Last night Mike was out on the fringes of the action – literally, standing at the outermost podium -- and reverted to the same dull-as-dishwater, low-T, man-without-a-constituency that we’ve come to expect. Mike’s problem is simple: centrists don’t trust him for his years of blind loyalty to Trump, and MAGA still wants to hang him. Last night Mike Pence tried to score points by aligning himself with Trump administration policies, but it all sounded so hollow and spineless when everyone knows what Trump wanted the insurrection crowd to do to him. Last night Pence was irrelevant. We may have seen his last debate.
North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum spent a good part of the evening being treated by the Fox moderators like dead man walking. One could hear him off-camera begging to be asked a question and demanding to be heard on specific issues. He was even scolded by Fox’s Dana Perino for his abrasive interruptions. When he finally spoke, he was dour and racing to jam in as many talking points as possible before they once again shut him down.
Apparently, we all need to go do extensive homework on what must be some North Dakota Miracle, because every time Burgum was asked a question – about anything – we learned that North Dakota is already doing it, doing it better than anybody, and doing it better because Doug was a businessman. Somebody needs to tell Doug Burgum that his party has heard the “I’m a businessman” argument before.
Chris Christie had a very good night, but unfortunately his superpower is tilting at windmills. Christie is on a singular crusade to bring down Donald Trump, which is sort of like walking into a bar in Boston’s Back Bay and trying to convince the rabid Patriot faithful that Tom Brady is no Eli Manning. Christie was thoughtful, eloquent, calm, and emotionally authentic. He spoke the truth to a party that wouldn’t hear the truth if Ronald Reagan suddenly appeared as an apparition on the Reagan Library stage and spoke it in plain English, his right hand over his heart and his left hand on a Bible.
Perhaps the highlight of the night came when Fox moderator Stuart Varney saw that Christie had scribbled a name in response to Dana Perino’s silly request to “vote someone off the island.” Christie said that the name he wrote down was Donald Trump -- because Trump had not only divided our nation, but he had “divided our families.” Christie said that Trump had created such a toxic divide that we can no longer talk about politics at the dinner table.
It's too bad, but Chris Christie could well be gone from the stage when the next debate is held on November 8. The qualifying requirements – 4% in national polling – may reduce the debate to three contestants.
Of course, a winnowed field is good news for Republicans hoping for an alternative to Trump. In the absence of any other national coverage, the debates can serve a vital function: there is no chance in the world that anyone can beat Donald Trump for the nomination unless the field is radically reduced. Until the voting begins, the only way to slim down the field is when the weaker candidates see their funding dry up due to lackluster debate performances… and when they disappear from the debate stage for failing to meet more stringent requirements for qualification.
For those who are holding out hope that Donald Trump can still be denied the nomination, it is critical that the race be narrowed to Trump and one rival before Super Tuesday.
Here’s the bet: while the Republican contestants were sharper on Wednesday night than in the first debate, they still have not taken off the gloves in fighting Donald Trump. Time is running out. Chris Christie has the right message but is the wrong messenger.
Nikki? Ron? Tim? Does anybody have the guts to tell the party that if they nominate Donald Trump, the party’s over? Does anybody have the guts to say “law and order” starts with who the party nominates for President?
Last night, we did not see the kind of political courage that it takes to change the game.
So: score another victory in absentia for Donald Trump.
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