Every now and again a presidential debate has a vivid, intense moment – a cut, a barb, an insult, or a joke that is remembered long after the tumult and shouting is over. “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience." “There you go again.”
Maybe not quite scaling that Mount Rushmore of debate moments, we nonetheless heard a zinger for the ages last night. Nikki Haley has made her contempt for Vivek Ramaswamy clear for some time now, having opined in the last debate that “every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say." But when Ramaswamy attempted to brand Haley a hypocrite by telling the audience that Haley’s daughter was a Tik-Tok user, the full outrage from the former U.N. ambassador boiled over, and she squashed the smarmy, glib Ramaswamy like a bug. “Leave my daughter out of your voice!” Haley hissed. Then, sotto voce, but clearly audible on the mic: “Just scum.”
When the debate ended, Ramaswamy made a big show of shaking hands with most of his opponents but went conspicuously out of his way to avoid Haley. My guess: he was worried that Haley would knee him in the groin.
You really had to wonder if Ramaswamy had decided to volunteer for the role of MAGA hit man… the guy who would please the Big Boss and his faithful by taking out the one candidate who was gaining traction. But his clumsy, clunky, ham-fisted, nasty attacks backfired, and turned Haley's otherwise B+ performance into a world-beater. Thank you, Vivek… you handed the evening to Nikki.
We’ll get to who won later, but it is so much more fun – and so much more unambiguous -- to talk about who lost.
Vivek Ramaswamy continued his enigmatic quest to become Donald Trump’s personal bobble-head, a lap-dog grade sycophant apparently seeking to score big on the Trump checklist of plutonium-grade deceit, cowering before authoritarian dictators, and prime-time camera-ready glam. Ramaswamy effortlessly toggles from resting manic face to sudden geysers of apoplectic looney, and somehow manages to be every bit as spooky and alienating when smiling as when he takes his full-on bulging-eyes pit bull attack stance.
Is Ramaswamy simply auditioning to be Trump's cutthroat VP attack dog? Or is playing some long game in which he figures that those who dared to trash-talk Trump in 2024 (Haley, DeSantis) will be permanently voted off the island, and Trump himself will be peering out at 2028 from Camp Cupcake, the comfiest minimum-security pen in the Federal prison system. Who can MAGA turn to 2028? Vivek!!
Ramaswamy came out of the gate smoking hot, attacking Republican Party Chairman Ronna McDaniel for allowing a GOP debate to be aired on the radical leftist NBC, where one of the debate moderators (Kristen Welker) apparently arranged for, uh, wha? Oh, for the 2020 election to be rigged. Huh?
It was only the second question of the night when Ramaswamy turned his lurid, manic weirdness on Haley, labeling her (and, we infer, DeSantis as well) as “Dick Cheney in three-inch heels.” A scant five minutes later, Ramaswamy was accusing Haley of personally profiting off American military support for Ukraine. Haley opened her retort by saying that “Putin and Xi are salivating that someone like that will be President.”
Ramaswamy and Haley may indeed be on opposite ends of the Republican spectrum, but it was their personal antipathy that hijacked what was otherwise a reasonably serious, substantive, and orderly debate. Give those leftist demons at NBC credit: Lester Holt, Welker, and Hugh Hewitt were far more successful at managing the candidates and the audience than were the moderators at the two prior debates.
But when the evening was over, Ramaswamy’s scorched earth policy seemed to have resulted in self-immolation. Face it, Vivek, trying to win over female voters by crudely attacking the parenting skills of the only woman on the stage, demanding the instant resignation of the female head of the party, and lashing out at the one moderator who happens to be a female… it all adds up to weapons-grade stupid.
Loser number one: Vivek Ramaswamy.
Tim Scott may have had a better night than in his two prior debate performances, but with polling numbers stuck in single digits, he needed to do a whole lot more that beat his own low bar. While Haley, his fellow South Carolinian, has enjoyed a sharp uptick in Iowa and New Hampshire, Scott clings to his unimpressive seven points in Iowa polling.
In his first and last remarks last evening, the South Carolina Senator seemed to be making a huge gamble on his Christian faith, and Scott dove deeply into his belief that the United States government must be “restored” to “Christian values.” Scott referenced Bible verse, and bemoaned that our nation was a “faithless and fatherless” society, one in which we “kneel in protest rather than in prayer.” He finished by noting that if God made you a biological man, God meant for you to play sports against men.
Maybe Tim Scott’s religious Hail Mary will score a touchdown in Iowa. No matter. The bet here is that the next time we look at the Iowa polling scoreboard, Tim Scott has the same seven points. Probably worse... he may slide down to a field goal, or just punt.
Loser number two: Tim Scott.
There are two reasons people like Chris Christie. The first, of course, is if you do not live in New Jersey, where hating Chris Christie is as essential to selfhood as the lyrics to “Thunder Road” and knowing your exit on the Garden State Parkway. The second is that Chris Christie is the only Republican who knows that somebody had to go full-on kamikaze to try to destroy Trump.
Once again – shockingly – the Republicans generally avoided mentioning the guy who is actually way, way, way out ahead in every poll in every primary state. Why DeSantis and Haley refuse to pummel Trump on his isolationist tendencies in the face of Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan is an utter mystery. But once again, only Chris Christie made any effort to remind the audience exactly who all these candidates were losing to.
Last night, Christie was less goofy, ever more serious, and very good. At no point was he better than when he called BS on his party for its self-destructive stance on abortion. Christie noted that “for fifty years conservative lawyers have been saying that the Federal government should have no role.” Suddenly, Christie pointed out, with Roe overturned, Republicans can’t wait to pursue a Federal ban. He let the irony hang in the room.
Christie asserted that the failure to ban Tik-Tok was "one of the failings of the Trump administration,” and bluntly told the GOP faithful that “a man who is going to spend the next year and a half in courtrooms” cannot lead the party during this extremely dangerous moment on the world stage. When other candidates wobbled and waffled on continuing support for Ukraine, Chris Christie said that there was “no choice.” “This is the price we pay for being the leaders of the free world.”
As the criteria for maintaining a position on the debate stage get stiffer, Christie may not make the next cut. It would be a pity. Sure, MAGA Republicans may ignore him… but Christie is breathing life into the “non-Trump lane,” daring to say the things that DeSantis and Haley should have been saying for a year.
Break-even: Chris Christie.
Ron DeSantis has been faulted in prior debates for his a robotic, odious, and grumpy visage, and his seemingly endless slide in the polls appeared easy to explain: the more you see him, the less you like him.
DeSantis finally seemed to relax a bit in last night’s debate, and that shift helped. DeSantis was aggressive on foreign policy issues, particularly in his eagerness to use the United States military to defend the Southern border and attack Mexican drug cartels. Indeed, to hear DeSantis, one got the impression that the State of Florida has its very own foreign policy which was being executed with dazzling success. Really?
Fortunately for DeSantis, those leftist NBC moderators did not spend time on the culture wars that define his political brand, so he did not spend the evening defending his book censorship or revisionist American history that slavery had big upsides for Black people. He even managed to effectively duck and cover when the candidates was asked to comment on the fact that Republicans were soundly thrashed in the Ohio vote on abortion access… an issue where Florida’s recent six-week law now appears proven to be wildly out-of-step with the general population.
DeSantis obviously recognized that Nikki Haley has emerged as his main rival, and squabbled with her about real estate deals she had made to help China. But with Ramaswamy launching so much venom at Haley, DeSantis may have correctly assessed that he could only be hurt by the optics of appearing to pile on.
What continues to be most puzzling and disappointing about DeSantis is his unwillingness to make Donald Trump the issue in the campaign. DeSantis has squandered months when he could have and should have been consolidating his role as the dominant figure in the “non-Trump lane.” Except for a few nerf balls last night – and those largely at the prompting of the moderators – DeSantis does not go after Trump.
Ron DeSantis may finally be finding his footing. His polling has been stable. He was better last night than he’s been in the past. He wasn't great, but he held serve and a bit more.
Not the winner, but a winner: Ron DeSantis.
Perhaps it was in part by default, but Nikki Haley is now the brightest object in the Republican Trump-alternative firmament.
In Wednesday’s Republican debate, she once again won the room, this time by simply by not being just another irksome, annoying male. She is not a wax museum automaton, not a preening poser eagerly showing his MAGA plumage like a horny bird-of-paradise in mating season, not an avuncular lecturer trying to force the party to swallow the medicine of truth, and not a Bible-toting dullard who can’t explain why he is running.
But she did far more than simply not be an annoying male. Nikki Haley’s superpower is exuding an authentic, level-headed, practical humanity in a party that has become the Chernobyl of angry victimhood, a sinkhole of anti-Washington loathing, and a dystopia of deceit.
She is gaining ground by mouthing a fair amount of
red-state red meat while doing her darndest to sound reasonable, tempered, and,
well, sane. It may not be enough to beat Donald Trump, but it is working better
than any of the other approaches. Haley's comet is rising. She may prove to be a shooting star that ultimately loses to Trump, but she is clearly becoming the one to watch.
It is annoying to watch Haley try to act like Republicans are more committed to Israel than Democrats by ignoring the fact that “Palestinians” and “Hamas” are not the same thing. At one point Haley chided the Biden administration for seeking a “humanitarian pause,” which Secretary of State Tony Blinken eagerly sought to prevent world opinion from swinging away from Israel. Haley likes to position herself as the candidate willing to talk tough truths to her party, but the real truth is that her position on Israel and Ukraine is a lot closer to Biden than to Trump.
In fact, Haley is embracing a traditional robust Republican view of America’s role on the global stage at a moment when threats from powerful malevolent actors are at Def Con One. While DeSantis and Ramaswamy excused their reduced support for Ukraine by claiming that the money would be better spent shoring up our southern border, Haley staunchly holds that the United States cannot abandon its support for Ukraine.
If only the GOP would listen to her, Haley continues to
articulate a real-politic answer on the abortion question that sounds at once
more empathetic and reasonable than anyone – anyone – in the GOP. She
insists that talk of national legislation is a waste of time on an issue that
will never get 60 votes in the Senate, either way. So she urges her party to
accept the real impact of Dobbs – that abortion is now a state decision, and
that many Blue states are going to completely disagree with Republican desires
on this extremely contentious issue. Most important: Haley urged her party to stop judging and condemning people who have different beliefs on abortion.
The debate winner: Haley.
If Haley continues to build momentum, it is possible that she could create the one-in-a-thousand scenario that could block Trump from the nomination: she could turn the primaries into a mano-a-womano one-on-one dual starting in South Carolina. In a sea of campaigns that are crashing on the rocks, she alone is rising. Voters like winners. Perhaps more to the point: donors like winners.
Here’s a simple challenge that Nikki Haley should lay on the gang of four angry men.
She should take the bull by the horns and seize the high ground of truth, telling her opponents that the only way to prevent Trump from taking the election is if the non-Trump lane rapidly consolidates around one candidate.
She should then suggest that all candidates should make a vow – now – that if they do not finish first, second, or third after Iowa, they will immediately drop out. Then, she should make a similar challenge for New Hampshire: if you don’t finish first or second in that primary, you should vow to drop out.
The goal: get the race down to one Trump and one Trump alternative by South Carolina. See what happens then.
She should be the first to take her own vow… and she should hammer away at it until every other candidate signs on.
It would be a bold play. It would make her look like the true leader of the non-Trump lane.
It would give a ray of hope to those of us who are desperately seeking a way to fling Donald Trump into the trash bin of history.
It is a path that could demonstrate that Haley’s comet is on its way up… not just a shooting star.
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