Republicans Debate Again
For the fourth time, or maybe it was the four hundredth time, a bunch of Republicans who are not going to be
president got together to "debate" while (largely) pretending that the 800-pound gorilla in the room doesn't exist. If
you want to watch it, you can do so
You could also re-watch any of the other Republican candidates' debates; they're pretty much interchangeable at this
K.H. in Golden, CO, wrote in with this suggestion:
I, for one, would like to excuse (V) and (Z) from having to watch a ridiculous debate on a ridiculous network with
ridiculous moderators for ridiculous candidates and then provide us with takes and comments. Instead, I suggest that (if
you don't have a subscription) you grab a 7-day trial on Hulu, watch 3 episodes of the 1980's screwball dramedy
Moonlighting and give us your rundown on those. It's just as ridiculous, but it's a lot more fun and you will get
to listen to some awesome soundtrack music, clever overlapping dialogue, intriguing (if impossible) plots, and, of
course, the incredibly delightful theme song sung by the inimitable Al Jarreau.
It's tempting, though if we were going to revisit a 1980s show, we might be more inclined to pick Coach (great
acting carried a concept of only moderate merit) or maybe The Wonder Years. Though who knows; (Z) was a big fan
of Family Ties during its original run, but when he caught a few episodes several weeks back, he discovered it
does not hold up. At all.
In any event, when you commit to a career in academia, and all the benefits therein—the glittering parties, the
enormous salary, the women and/or men throwing themselves at you on a daily basis, the Italian sports cars—you
also sign up to do some things you would rather not do in the advancement of human knowledge. So, we did our duty last
night and watched 2 hours of paint drying... er, prattling from people who are in a heated race for second place.
There are few enough moving parts at this point that we can just take a look at each of them. So:
- The Moderators: We had no expectations that the trio of Megyn Kelly, Eliana Johnson and
Elizabeth Vargas would perform well. And despite that, they were still a disappointment.
Usually, the big problem is that the moderators can't maintain discipline. Certainly, that was an issue last night,
although not in the most common way, which is candidates shouting over each other. The candidates did talk over
each other a fair bit, though it wasn't as bad as some of the other debates. The bigger symptom of the lack of
discipline is that, to a greater or lesser extent, the candidates were allowed to seize the stage as they saw fit. So,
for example, Nikki Haley might say something, and when she finished Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) would jump in, and then
after that Vivek Ramaswamy would pipe up, and then it might circle back to Haley. There were several extended periods
where the moderators were just spectators, with no role in managing the proceedings.
Further, as is par for the course for these things, the moderators didn't make any meaningful effort to be politically
neutral. The majority of the questions presumed that the Republican takes on things—gender-affirming care is
harmful, global warming has been overblown, Israel is the only victim in the Middle East, the border is out of
control—are just "the facts." And the only time they turned to an outsider for questions, it was Tom Fitton, the
president of Judicial Watch. That's no different from talking to a high-ranking member of the Federalist Society.
All of this said, the biggest problem was that the moderators asked wordy, long-winded questions. In academia, people do
that at colloquia and other such events because they want to show off how smart they are. We don't know what the
moderators were trying to accomplish, but what we do know—and this is really Political Interviewing 101—is
that if you ask a politician unfocused questions, you are opening the door to the respondent just saying whatever they
want to say, without answering the substance of the question (or, quite often, any of the question). This happened
constantly last night.
Oh, and secondary to that issue, but related, was that the moderators read their questions off of what must have been
index cards. And somehow, although they all have broadcast experience, none of them could do proper live reads off the
cards. The result was that their reads not only used incorrect inflection much of the time, but they were full of
inappropriate pauses. Think something like: "Joe Biden has failed to secure... the border, so that there is a stream
of... immigrants and fentanyl coming across the... border on a regular basis. What would... you do differently?" Megyn
Kelly was particularly bad in this way.
- DeSantis: If we read a story tomorrow in which someone claimed that DeSantis was too ill
to attend the debate, and so sent a robot in his stead, we must admit that we wouldn't be 100% able to call B.S.
Yes, DeSantis is usually wooden, but last night was as bad as he's ever been. He also couldn't figure out what to do
with his hands; sometimes he'd hold them by his side, sometimes he'd clutch them in front of himself, sometimes he'd pat
his pockets like he was checking to see if he'd lost his wallet. Pro tip, Ron: use them to grip the podium.
The most robotic part of Ron-Bot's performance, however, was that he just repeated the same exact talking points from
the previous debates, using virtually the same verbiage, including the same exact anecdotes. For example, he repeated
the story about the toddler who died because they got their hands on some fentanyl at an Airbnb. Did he forget that he
already used that story? Did he think the viewers would forget? Or, after two debates in a week (the other, of course,
with Gov. Gavin Newsom, D-CA), does he just not care, and so he's mailing it in? Whatever it is, in a night full of
boring people, he was the King of the Bores. And we refuse to believe that he flipped even a single vote last night.
Actually, it's entirely possible that DeSantis might have lost some support, in particular among conservative Jewish
voters. There was a point in the debate where the candidates were talking about antisemitism, and DeSantis said that
antisemitism was as bad today in Germany as it was in the time of Hitler, and that is because Germany keeps letting so
many foreigners into the country. Let that sink in for a moment. DeSantis' solution to the problem of antisemitism is
for Germany to pursue a policy of national purity and monoculturism? In other words, he wants to follow the roadmap
of... Adolf Hitler? We don't know what the heck was going on there—maybe there was a software glitch—but we
suspect that some viewers are going to pick up on the white supremacist and, ironically, antisemitic undertones of that
- Ramaswamy: Story time. Several years ago, before it closed its doors, (Z) visited the
Liberace Museum Collection in Las Vegas. That museum was basically built around three things: (1) a diorama of Liberace's life,
(2) a collection of Liberace's pianos, and (3) a display of several dozen of Liberace's costumes. And roughly the fifth
costume (Z) saw was this one:
For the record, that is a red-sequined cutaway coat with ribbon epaulets and rhinestone stars, blue-sequined hot pants
with rhinestone ornaments, a rhinestone shirt, a rhinestone bowtie and a lace cravat. And (Z)'s response on seeing this
was to marvel: "My God, Liberace was brilliant. While maintaining at least some level of public doubt about his
sexuality, he managed to out-gay Freddie Mercury, Elton John and Mr. Blackwell... combined. That is undoubtedly the
gayest outfit ever created!"
And then, (Z) moved onto the next outfit, which was this:
Those are satin pants, rhinestone shirt, an even bigger and lacier cravat, a rhinestone brooch, and a pink feather boa
overcoat with pink ostrich feather shoulder decorations. And (Z)'s response to seeing this was: "Well, guess I was wrong
about the Fourth of July costume being the gayest outfit ever created."
What is the point here? No, it's not that we think Ramaswamy is gay. He's not, and even if he was, the LGBTQ community
would never have him. The point is that every time we conclude that Ramaswamy couldn't possibly get more obnoxious, he
somehow does it. His genius for being repulsive equals Liberace's genius for toying with the general public's ideas about
How was he obnoxious? Let us count the ways. As we wrote yesterday, he is the conspiracy theorist of the group, and
last night he spouted plenty of nonsense on that front, like claiming that Blackrock is the most powerful company in
the world and is basically running everything. Ramaswamy also put on his know-it-all hat, in particular making it seem
as if it's a BIG DEAL that he can name the provinces of East Ukraine while the other candidates cannot. He engaged in
sleazy personal attacks, like calling Haley dumb and making a fat joke at the expense of Chris Christie. He fired
off nonsensical, inflammatory rhetoric, like saying the two biggest fascists in the country are Joe Biden and Nikki
Perhaps the most obnoxious, and certainly the most ham-fisted, moment for Ramaswamy was when he took the notepad provided
to the candidates and did this:
Lord knows what made him think that would be a good idea, but it landed with a thud among those on stage and in the audience.
Further, we are much mistaken if it does not launch a thousand memes, along the lines of the
There are all kinds of things that Ramaswamy memo pad could be made to say, courtesy of Photoshop.
Our presumption, and the presumption of others, has been that Ramaswamy is auditioning for the #2 spot on the Trump
ticket. And if so, we don't think he's doing a good job of it. Trump wants someone who is both an attack dog and a
lapdog, the way Mike Pence was. But Ramaswamy is too full of himself, and too lacking in control, to be a reliable
lapdog, we would say. Trump wouldn't want to risk the possibility that his VP might get out of control. On top of that,
Ramaswamy's obnoxious crap isn't being received well by voters. We presume the audience for the debate skewed
conservative, since the event was in Alabama, and since it was staged primarily by right-wing organizations. And
Ramaswamy was booed, loudly, numerous times. Trump wants someone who's popular with the base, not someone who is a
turn-off to many of them.
- Haley: DeSantis and Ramaswamy have decided, it would appear, that Haley is the enemy.
Presumably they reached that conclusion for different reasons (one of them longs to be the clear second-place candidate
again, the other wants to kiss up to Donald Trump), but they both got to that same endpoint. So, they both piled on to
her, with the primary message being that she's a Joe Biden clone. It takes some pretty tortured logic to pull off that
comparison, but there it is.
Haley may have suspected this was coming. Or maybe she has reason to think she needs to shore up her right flank. For
whatever reason, she decided to tack pretty hard rightward last night. She reminded everyone that she was a founding
member of the tea party movement (which implies that she's Freedom Caucus-friendly). She talked about how conservative
her policies on abortion and LGBTQ issues are. She was extremely hawkish on foreign affairs questions.
Since Haley was her usual unflappable self, and since she deftly parried most of the attacks upon her, and since she
made clear, once again, that she's the room's strongest person on foreign policy, we have no doubt that most outlets
will declare her the winner of the debate, yet again. For our part, however, that's not how we have it. We think that
tacking rightward potentially harms her run for the Republican nomination (the RNC, if it ends up choosing a Trump
replacement, is going to be concerned about electability) and it certainly harms her if she somehow makes it to the
general election. Taking damage, while not gaining anything, does not fit the definition of the word "win."
- Chris Christie: And that brings us to... the winner, as we see it. Christie is never, ever
going to be nominated for president, but he WAS the only candidate on stage last night who did some new and different
things, and his performance is the one that might linger in memory, at least for a while.
To start, Christie took on Ramaswamy, and it got bloody. At one point, Ramaswamy tried to talk over Christie and
Christie told him to shut up, because "I'm not done yet." Not long thereafter, Christie called Ramaswamy "the most
obnoxious blowhard in America." And the former governor even defended Haley against Ramaswamy's incoming fire,
remarking: "I've known Nikki for 12 years, longer than he's been voting in Republican primaries." Lots of people have
been waiting for someone to take the smarmy one down a peg, and Christie did the best job of it we've seen so far.
Christie was also the only candidate to take on Donald Trump in a meaningful way (with the possible exception of a few
cautious criticisms from Haley). Christie expressed his frustrations that nobody in his party is willing to even talk
about Trump, comparing the former president to Lord Voldemort (whose name, for those who have not read the Harry Potter
books, is feared so much in the wizarding world that few will utter it). Later, Christie shared his view that if Trump
becomes president, he will act as a dictator, and will shred the fabric of American democracy.
In the end, this thing is over. And we don't mean that Donald Trump has an insurmountable lead (though that
is also true). We mean that the only (slim) hope for any non-Trump candidate is some version of a brokered
convention. And there is only one person on stage last night who could possibly be the pick in that circumstance.
The RNC and its delegates are not going to go with someone as loathsome as Ramaswamy. They are not going to go
with Ron-Bot, who is clearly not ready for the big time, and who presumably never will be. And they are not going
to go with Christie, whose approval rating among Republicans is below 20%. That leaves only Haley who has a
glimmer of making the strategy of "hold onto second place and hope Trump collapses for some reason" work.
Anyhow, forgive us for turning the snark up to 11. But when you're dealing with people who largely have as much
flavor as wallpaper paste, it's about the only way we can think of to make the piece at least somewhat interesting.
And, by all reports, there will be at least two more of these before New Hampshire, so get ready to do it all
over again. And again. (Z)
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