Dem 51
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GOP 49
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Not Much Sugar in Cream City

Eight Republicans descended on Milwaukee yesterday, hoping to advance their presidential hopes (or other agendas). With relatively little camera time for each person, and in a hyper-competitive circumstance, it's not too surprising that things often turned nasty. You can watch it here if you missed it, and you still want to see it.

This is the first debate this cycle, so we will take this opportunity to remind readers that we do not read or listen to anyone else's opinions/analyses before we do our write-ups. That way, we are not unduly influenced by the views of others. Maybe, once we do take a look at some other commentators, we'll be on the exact same page as them. On the other hand, maybe our comments will be way out in left field. Anything is possible.

We're going to start with a half dozen general observations:

  1. No Trump? No Problem: Had Donald Trump attended the debate, as opposed to doing whatever it was he did with Tucker Carlson—and note that we'll watch the debates, but we ARE NOT subjecting ourselves to that—then he would have dominated the stage without telling us anything new. His absence, then, gave the other candidates a chance for some actual camera time. And with him not there, he actually got mentioned relatively little. The moderators asked a question about the situation in Georgia, but beyond that, even Chris Christie didn't talk about the former president all that often.

  2. Look Over There!: Speaking of the situation in Georgia, that was one of several issues that the candidates did not wish to touch with a ten-foot pole. Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum actually showed a live shot of Fulton County Courthouse, said that Trump would be arraigned there in about 12 hours, and asked the people on stage for their opinions. Nary a one uttered the phrases "Georgia," "Fani Willis," or "election fraud," among obvious possibilities. In essence, they just vaguely expressed their opposition to the weaponization of the Justice Department (conveniently overlooking that Willis is not a federal official), and they had a quick airing of views as to whether a former president should be subject to the Constitution. Vivek Ramaswamy was the most extreme, damning all the various prosecutions as shams and saying he would insta-pardon Trump on becoming president. Christie and Mike Pence were the most... lawful (?), asserting that no man is above the law. It's hard to take these "differences of opinion" all that seriously, though, because when the candidates were asked if they would vote for Trump even if he was convicted, six of them definitely raised their hands, while Christie halfway did so. Only Asa Hutchinson did not.

    In short, there was no real comment on the charges in Georgia, for the obvious reason that nobody particularly wants to alienate Trump and his base, but nobody particularly wants to endorse racketeering, either (well, except Ramaswamy). To take another example, the moderators tried to get everyone to raise their hands if they believe that climate change is caused, at least in part, by human activity. To the relief of those on stage, since this is another issue where there is no "good" position for a Republican presidential candidate, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) hijacked the question before anyone could move and blathered on about the Florida coast for 45 seconds. In the end, the only person whose position was made clear was Ramaswamy, who announced loudly that his hands were squarely in his pockets and who called climate change "a hoax."

  3. Lines of Attack: It was expected that the major clashes would be between Ramaswamy and DeSantis and between Christie and (the absent) Trump. Again, Christie largely left Trump alone. And DeSantis and Ramaswamy barely butted heads at all. So, the major clashes (and they WERE major) were between Ramaswamy and three of the other candidates on stage, namely Pence, Christie and Nikki Haley (more below).

  4. Lies, Lies, Lies: If we tried to document and refute all of the dishonest statements uttered on stage, we'd be here all night and then some. If that is what you would like, see The New York Times, USA Today, Politifact, and/or CNN (though note that none of those outlets tries to be comprehensive, as it would just be too much).

    For our part, we'll note that the folks on stage are not generally prone to telling outright falsehoods, the way that Donald Trump is. However, they are prone to very aggressive deployment of politician lies. For example, you generally shouldn't trust a statistic if it comes from a politician, and you definitely shouldn't trust it if it comes from one of these eight politicians. DeSantis is probably the worst here, as when he claimed that crime dropped to a 50-year low during his governorship, while neglecting to mention that the rules for reporting crimes to the state were changed, such that 40% of Florida police departments stopped sending in their data. To take another example, Pence claimed that 70% of Americans favor a ban on abortions after 15 weeks, while failing to note that poll was an extreme outlier, was structured poorly, and was the work of a pollster (Harvard/Harris) that has had a clear right-wing skew in the last several years.

    Another common kind of politician lie is the "personal anecdote." Anecdotes seem like proof of concept, and they can be very difficult to either confirm or disprove. That's not to say that all personal anecdotes are false or misleading, mind you, but they have to be taken with multiple spoonfuls of salt when they come from a politician. The one that, in particular, did not pass the smell test for us last night came from DeSantis. He claimed that he met a woman named Penny who, as an infant, survived "several" unsuccessful abortions, and even then only because her grandmother recovered her from a biohazard waste bin and took her to a hospital to be resuscitated. Maybe it's true, but it's very hard to swallow, and we can find no trace of this person, despite the fact that she should be all over the place, courtesy of the anti-abortion crowd.

  5. Mediocre Moderators: To their credit, Baier and MacCallum did not limit themselves to softball questions, and asked some actual toughies. On the other hand, they did not enforce discipline very well, particularly when the "time's up" bell had sounded. Had Trump been there, it would have been even worse. Further, as noted, the hosts did a terrible job of forcing the politicians to actually answer the tough questions. Also, Baier in particular is far too prone to editorializing from a conservative perspective, which is problematic for someone who is at least pretending to be fair and impartial.

  6. Get Rid of the Audience: We understand why Fox wanted a large, raucous audience, as it contributes to the ratings-grabbing feeling of debates-as-bloodsport. However, too much time was spent waiting for the people in the peanut gallery to shut up. Further, their cheers and boos serve to undermine the integrity of the debate. If there has to be an audience, it would be nice if they were somehow separate from the politicians, such that the audience microphones could be muted as needed.

Moving along, let's talk a bit about each of the eight candidates. We would propose that, in the debate, they had two jobs: (1) make an argument for why they should be president, and (2) make themselves likable—or, at very least, "presidential"—to the voters. Just for comparison's sake, we're going to give each candidate a score in each of these two areas. We think #1 is considerably more important than #2, so we'll give 0 to 15 points for the argument and 0 to 5 points for the personality. And with that said, here are our reviews, in the order in which the candidates were "ranked" (and thus, the order in which they were placed on the stage, with #1 DeSantis at the center, #2 Ramaswamy to his left (stage left, that is), #3 Pence to DeSantis' right, and so forth:

  1. Ron DeSantis: His argument for the presidency (and note that we're going to paraphrase for each of these opening sentences, as opposed to quoting directly) is "I've implemented a (far-right) conservative agenda in my state, and I can do it nationally." To adapt the old Biden line about Rudy Giuliani, every sentence out of DeSantis' mouth contains a noun, a verb and "Florida." We guess that's the best he's got, though it means he is ignoring all the politics experts who say that people in Iowa want to hear about Iowa, and people in New Hampshire want to hear about New Hampshire, and nobody (except maybe the people in Florida) wants to hear about Florida.

    The obsessive focus on Florida brings two, somewhat related, problems. The first of those is that DeSantis is largely unable or unwilling to speak to issues that aren't germane in Florida—like, say, corn subsidies. The second, and we think more significant, of those is that he has not provided any meaningful information about how he's going to take what he did in Florida (where he has a pliant, GOP-dominated state legislature) and translate that to Washington (where he won't have that). That said, at least he does have policy proposals. On argument, we give him a 7/15.

    As to likability, DeSantis is never going to engender warm fuzzies in anyone. That said, he was actually... OK last night. For whatever reason, his voice wasn't as nasal as usual and his face wasn't as squinty as usual. Further, he did virtually nothing that was in his leaked script, and yet was still credible. He gets a 3/5 here, which is probably his ceiling.

  2. Vivek Ramaswamy: His argument for the presidency is "I'm young, and we need fresh blood in Washington." Ramaswamy mentioned over and over how he is far and away the youngest person in the field, and the only one to be a Millennial. He also made clear that he is as Trumpy and far-right as it gets.

    The response to Ramaswamy was reminiscent of the response, in 2020, to Andrew Yang. That is to say, both men enjoy the support of a small but hardcore segment of the primary electorate. In Ramaswamy's case, that was clear from the audience response every time he spoke last night. But like Yang, Ramaswamy has a low ceiling, and isn't ever going to move beyond that. Unlike Yang, Ramaswamy doesn't care.

    Indeed, while Ramaswamy nominally talked about fresh blood and generational change, the only thing that was really on his agenda last night was showing off his attack-dog skills. He fought early and often with the other candidates, regularly delivering below-the-belt cheap shots. One example, among many, was when Ramaswamy crowed that he was the only candidate on stage who was not "bought and paid for." It could not be clearer that he is not running for president at all, he is auditioning to be Trump's VP (or, failing that, a member of Trump's cabinet). On argument, we give him a 2/15, since he's not really making an argument for the presidency at all.

    As to Ramaswamy's personality, there's only one word that comes to mind: obnoxious. He also has a nasal voice, and on top of that, he talks too fast. His incredibly high opinion of himself emanates from every pore of his body. And his snotty attacks on his colleagues may be what the hardcore Trumpers want, but they came off as cheap and contrived. One of those attacks, in fact, was a snide comment about how "scripted" the other people on stage were, at a time when it was clear Ramaswamy was the most scripted of them all. So, add "hypocritical" to our list of criticisms. On personality, he gets a 0/5, only because the rules we established don't allow for negative numbers.

  3. Mike Pence: The former VP's argument for the presidency is: "I'm the best prepared for the big job." Maybe that is true, since he's served as a governor, a member of Congress, and a part of the executive branch. It was very interesting to hear him take credit for the main accomplishments of the Trump administration (like the tax cut and the NAFTA update), conveniently ignoring the fact that everyone knows VPs have no real power and that he was an outsider for most of the Trump presidency.

    In any event, Pence has no meaningful policy ideas, unless you count a federal abortion ban (which isn't happening) as a policy idea. The main story last night, for him, was all the sniping between him and Ramaswamy. On argument, we give him a 5/15.

    As to personality, Pence has none. He's just about the blandest politician this side of Jeb! He wasn't actively unlikable last night, but he was neither likable nor impressive. He had more speaking time than any other candidate (12:26), and said nothing particularly interesting, funny or memorable. He gets 2/5 from us.

  4. Nikki Haley: It won't matter in the polls, and in fact she might sink a little, but Haley put forward the best performance of the night last night. Her argument was: "Politics is the art of the possible." There can be no doubt she's a Republican, as she made clear her anti-abortion bona fides, her willingness to support the Party's presidential candidate, etc. But she also pointed out that Republicans and Democrats are both responsible for the deficit and the national debt, while also arguing that a Republican president has to focus on what's possible when it comes to abortion policy, as opposed to committing to the fondest wishes of evangelical Christians. Republican voters tend to prefer "pie in the sky" as opposed to "hard truths," which is why Haley might suffer in the polls. But if she was to somehow get the GOP nomination, she'd be the most electable candidate on stage. On argument, she gets 14/15.

    On personality, Haley wasn't unusually likable, but she was very presidential. Even if you didn't know the respective candidates' résumés, you would still know she laps the field when it comes to foreign policy, as she explained in detail why abandoning Ukraine is a bad idea. She also handled the various male aggressions well, so thoroughly parrying Ramaswamy that he looked for a moment like he was going to blow his top. We give her 4/5.

  5. Chris Christie: His case for the presidency is "I can work across the aisle." He dwelled at length on his record in New Jersey, and his time as a U.S. attorney. All of this has nothing to do with taking down Donald Trump, and everything to do with actually running for president. Meanwhile, as noted, Christie largely did not lay into the former president. Add it up, and perhaps he's shifted from his previously stated goal of crippling Trumpism, and has begun to convince himself he might just win this thing. The problem is that he offered no policy ideas. Further, Republican voters weren't buying whatever it was he was selling in 2016; what has changed now, except that he's now a flip-flopper extraordinaire? Christie's argument gets 6/15.

    As to personality, Christie's shtick is that he's the brash New Jersey guy, who's likable in the same way as, say, Vinny Barbarino from Welcome Back, Kotter. And the former Garden State governor did get off a couple of bon mots last night, like a joke about why the New Jersey guy is the one who gets asked the question about UFOs. He also had a funny line about how Ramaswamy is the ChatGPT debater. That said, Christie can be a little grating. Meanwhile, his other selling point, namely his assertive self-confidence, was largely not on display last night. He was NOT on his game, and stumbled through several answers. In particular, he appeared to be positively shaken by a question about how New Jersey's credit rating was downgraded 11 times while he was in office. On the whole, he did not come off as presidential. It's a 2/5 from us, though he's capable of getting to 4/5 on a better night.

  6. Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC): Scott's case for the presidency is... um... we don't know. The candidates had numerous opportunities to explain why they are the best choice, and he took none of them. We watched his 7:57 of talking, and we still have no idea why he thinks people should vote for him. Oh, he's certainly a Christian (and he quoted the Bible multiple times), a conservative, and a supporter of most parts of Trumpism. But there are lots of politicians like that. We guess his argument may be one that cannot be stated openly: I am both conservative and Black, and you can vote for me and then congratulate yourself that you're not a racist.

    Scott is also one of these folks who is particularly prone to talking about desirable goals without expressing any particular means of getting to those goals. For example, he wants to bring jobs back to America. Fair enough, that is a good goal. But how? The Senator also said that it would just take another $10 billion to finish Trump's border wall, and then the immigration problem would be solved. We've written a million words about how the wall will not solve much of anything, and how it is most certainly not finish-able for just $10 billion. We take from this that the Senator isn't actually serious about policy, and that he's just pandering. On argument, we bestow 3/15.

    On personality, by contrast, Scott's great. He's self-effacing, he has a mellifluous voice and he's got lots of charisma. If you were going to pick someone on stage to have a beer with, it would likely be him. 5/5 here.

  7. Asa Hutchinson: Hutchinson's argument is... um... again, we don't know. He and Scott were the two candidates who didn't do anything to make that clear. In Scott's case, as we note, it's at least possible that he can't say the quiet part out loud. In Hutchinson's case, we just have no idea what is going on. Up to this point, we thought he was trying to run in the post-Trump centrist lane. But that's not his pitch. Oh, he was as anti-Trump as anyone on stage was willing to be. But other than that, he leaned into far-right policy positions. Who, exactly, does Hutchinson think his base is? Far-right never Trumpers? Is Hutchinson the Dick Cheney candidate? On argument, he's a 2/15.

    As to personality, Hutchinson certainly isn't likable. There are some former Arkansas governors who just ooze with charm; Hutchinson is not among them. Indeed, his ostensible Southern twang sounds more Vermont than it does Arkansas. Meanwhile, we do not know how tall he actually is, but he seemed to be 4 feet tall last night. Every time the camera cut to him, we were left with the impression of a garden gnome using the podium to pull himself up. This is not to insult his appearance, but merely to say that he was the opposite of "presidential." Also encouraging that perception was that Hutchinson let the other candidates walk all over him, such that he had the least speaking time of anyone (7:25). Hutchinson wasn't actively obnoxious, at least, so we give him 1/5.

  8. Doug Burgum: Burgum's case is "I'm a small-town guy who likes a small government." It usually takes 24-48 hours for debate transcripts to be posted online, so we don't know for sure, but there was a real competition for which number is higher: DeSantis utterances of "Florida," or Burgum utterances of "small town." That said, almost every time Burgum talked policy—use of force against Mexico, building up the military—he didn't exactly sound like a small-town or small government kind of guy. Muddied messaging, to say the least, so we think he's a 5/15 on argument.

    On a personal level, Burgum was probably the handsomest fellow on stage, and he's got a million-watt smile. Also, he was debating injured, as he tore his Achilles tendon playing basketball the night before last. He made a good, if obvious, joke about how he took "break a leg" a little too literally. He's also selling t-shirts that show a person in the famous Michael Jordan "Jumpman" dunk posture, except with a cowboy hat and boots:

    Burgum silhouette dunking a basketball

    We rather doubt that Burgum can actually dunk a basketball, much less from the free throw line, but it's a nice touch. In any case, he was a 4/5 on personality.

If we add up the scores, it gives us this de facto ranking of the candidates' debate performances:

  1. Nikki Haley: 18
  2. Ron DeSantis: 10
  3. Doug Burgum: 9
  4. Chris Christie: 8
  5. Tim Scott: 8
  6. Mike Pence: 7
  7. Asa Hutchinson: 3
  8. Vivek Ramaswamy: 2

That's a clear winner in Haley, a better-than-expected performance from DeSantis, a bunch of folks in the mushy middle, and two train wrecks in Hutchinson and Ramaswamy. That comports pretty well with our general sense of the debate.

We'll spend time tomorrow going through other assessments, and undoubtedly we'll have items tomorrow with some combination of takeaways and/or winners/losers. We'll probably run some reader comments, too, so if you have 'em, send 'em along. (Z)

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