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Republicans Debate in Florida's Arsht Hall

To be entirely accurate, last night's GOP debate was held in The John S. and James L. Knight Concert Hall, which is one of three venues at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. However, local media often simplify it down to Arsht Hall. We thank reader R.E.M. in Brooklyn, NY, for bringing that rather appropriate name to our attention.

We watched the whole thing, so that (many) readers don't have to. Here are the ten things that stood out to us:

  1. Future Moderators, Take Notes: Last night's trio of moderators put the folks who oversaw the past two debates to shame. Lester Holt was particularly effective at projecting a commanding presence, asking useful questions, and keeping the candidates from talking over each other. The latter was achieved, at least in part, by warning the candidates that if they did not play nice, they would get fewer questions (see the next item for more on this). Kristen Welker, for her part, was pretty good. And Hugh Hewitt was predictably the weakest moderator, both in terms of the questions he asked, and in his ability to keep the candidates under control. However, even he was better than what we saw at debates #1 and #2.

    Based on this sample size of three, we wonder if it might not be better to have a policy that the moderators come from outlets whose politics are not aligned with the candidates'. The Fox moderators tend to ask softball questions, since they can scarcely afford to alienate people who will be guests on next week's program (or, maybe, tomorrow's program). And note that if this was the Democratic debate, we would be entirely on board with using Fox moderators, for the same reason.

    The one thing the moderators did have trouble with was keeping the audience under control. Truth be told, we don't fully understand what the theory of the audience is. If they are supposed to stay silent, then why do they need to be there at all? And if they are supposed to provide atmosphere/crowd response, then why are they constantly shushed by the moderators?

  2. We Have a Winner...: As we have noted, we don't look at any debate write-ups until after we've done our own. But if Nikki Haley isn't declared the winner by approximately 100% of commentators, we will be shocked. She is clearly better suited to this format than the others, and she was the only individual on stage who regularly sounded statespersonlike (our spell checker does not approve of that word, but we can't call her "statesmanlike," can we?).

    Haley is not only the smoothest debater, she is also quite clearly the foreign policy expert (helps to have been ambassador to the UN), and her policy ideas were the ones most likely to have a place in the real world, as opposed to the fantasy world of the other candidates, where presidents can snap their fingers and do all kinds of things that are actually the purview of Congress. That's not to say that Haley always had two feet on the ground, but she—and Chris Christie—were the only ones to spend more than 50% of their time in a place other than Fantasyland.

    We should also note that Haley gave as good as she got, when it was necessary. She did some sparring with Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), and got the upper hand. She also got off a few bons mots at the expense of Vivek Ramaswamy. After he said he was up against two phonies "in three-inch heels" (in other words, Haley and Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-FL), she fired back that she actually wears five-inch heels, that she doesn't wear any heels that she can't run in, and that she wears the heels not for fashion but for ammunition. This isn't hilarious in written form, but it played pretty well in the moment.

  3. ...And a Loser...: As he desperately tries to claim Mike Pence's now-free-agent voters, Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) went full theocrat, and made clear that he'd love to build a government that prioritizes Christianity and Christian principles.

    That position is obviously problematic, but beyond that, he didn't even sell it well. He is probably the least-skilled speaker who was on stage last night, which is saying something when Ron DeSantis is in the house. His words are halting, and he often misspeaks, and his emphasis is unnatural. Put it this way: Joe Biden has been pilloried as a drooling, demented moron for public speaking performances that were not nearly as poor as Scott's.

    Scott was also the least able to actually answer the questions put to him (which means he was the one relying most on pre-scripted talking points). For example, when the Senator was asked what he would do as president, RIGHT NOW, to help people suffering due to inflation, he said he would... sign the paperwork needed to create the Keystone Pipeline. Huh? After he prattled on about energy independence and yadda yadda yadda for 60 seconds, the moderators reminded him that they were asking about how to help people RIGHT NOW. He answered with hand waving--Laffer Curve--futures markets--blah blah blah--so yes Keystone XL would combat inflation immediately. OK, Senator.

  4. ...And an A**hole: It's too bad assault is illegal, because Vivek Ramaswamy could really use a punch in the face. What an unbelievable jerk he is. If you thought he could not get worse than he was at the previous debates, well, you thought wrong. Presumably, in an effort to keep his "candidacy" going, or to more fully attach his lips to Donald Trump's posterior, he turned up the obnoxiousness to 11.

    The only thing we can say in Ramaswamy's favor is that he did not limit his snottiness to Democrats. No, he sprayed venom in all directions, like he was armed with a jerk shotgun. He smeared RNC Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel. He looked the two NBC moderators in the eye and advised them that they were not competent to moderate the debate, and accused the media in general of being traitors. He hit Republicans of generations past, Washington bureaucrats, Congress, immigrants, and all other manner of targets.

    Of course, Ramaswamy spent much time taking cheap shots at the folks on stage. Actually, we're not sure he even knew Christie was there. And our only evidence that he was aware of Scott was the 30-40 seconds where he and the Senator rudely chatted and smirked while Haley was speaking. However, there was much Vivek Vitriol fired in the directions of Haley and DeSantis, much of it below the belt. Most notably, when talking about the evils of China and TikTok, Ramaswamy attacked Haley as a hypocrite because her daughter has TikTok on her phone. How he knows that, we do not know, but it's a little creepy. It's also out of bounds; the crowed booed and Haley lost her cool for a moment, blasting Ramaswamy as "scum."

    Ramaswamy also managed to run through a "greatest hits" of Republican conspiracy theories from the last 15 or so years, from COVID and China (he wants the Chinese to pay the U.S. back for its expenses during the pandemic) to Hillary Clinton and the Russia dossier to George Soros. He also put forward one that we weren't familiar with; that the Democrats have no intention of running Joe Biden in 2024, and he's just serving as a screen to hide the "real" nominee, whoever it might be. Ramaswamy is either seriously unwell or seriously unhinged or both. Which means he's very much in the running to be Donald Trump's running mate.

  5. Less Is More: Having five people on stage, as opposed to seven or eight, made for a far less disjointed affair. Even better would be four or three, particularly if Ramaswamy is among the subtractions.

  6. Nighthawks: The overwhelming focus of the debate was foreign policy. Fair enough, but if you think that means that it was dominated by Israel and Ukraine, well... not so much. Sure, those subjects—especially Israel—came up some. But considerably more time was devoted to the evils of China. And the second-most-frequent "foreign affairs crisis" brought up by the candidates was the United States' border with Mexico. It has very clearly become an item of faith among Republicans that the southern border is the #1 threat to American security because it's allowing thousands of criminals and terrorists and untold amounts of fentanyl into the country.

    Equally importantly, with the sometimes exception of Christie, the folks on stage last night made clear they are all hawks. They are hawkish hawks. They are a hawkish hawk's hawkish hawks. They differ on exactly where to use deadly force, but they all think it should be a foremost tool in the president's toolkit. All of them said there should be no limits on Israel's response to Hamas. Most of them want to engage in some brinkmanship (or brinkwomanship—and yes, the spell checker hates that word, too) with China. Most of them want to frighten Iran with a show of force. Most of them want to use U.S. troops along the U.S. border. If a voter prefers to avoid World War III, it should be clear what party to vote for in 2024 (Hint: Not the Republicans).

  7. What Democrats?: Interestingly, given the focus on foreign policy (we're talking at least 70% of the debate), there was relatively little talk about the Democrats in general or the Democrat in the White House. Sure, there was some obligatory finger-pointing at Joe Biden, but it was a remarkably small part of the evening.

  8. Whither Abortion?: For whatever reason, the moderators waited until the very end to ask about abortion. Given what happened in Ohio, we would have thought Israel and Abortion would be one and two, in some order, but that is not what happened. In any event, if there is anyone who understands the candidates' position on abortion access (except, perhaps, Haley's), then they are cleverer than we are. We suppose it's only been 24 hours or so since Ohio enshrined abortion rights in its state constitution, while the notion of a 15-week ban failed badly in Virginia. So, there hasn't been time for the folks on stage to decide what they "believe" now.

  9. Irony Is Dead: Either because they were speaking in the heat of the moment, or because they don't think people are paying attention, the folks on stage said some... remarkable things last night. Ramaswamy decried antisemitism and then, shortly thereafter, besmirched the Jewish Volodymyr Zelenskyy as a "Nazi." Haley complained about "policies" that have squeezed the middle class, and have allowed the rich to become richer and richer and richer. Hmmm... hard to know which party has championed such policies.

    The real eye-roller of the night, however, came from DeSantis. During one of his many harangues about China, he said that if the United States is not careful, the Chinese will export authoritarian government, where it could subsume states like Florida. C'mon, Ron. Authoritarian government, where the state closely regulates schools, keeps corporations under control, actively restricts voting rights, gives money to favored friends of the regime, etc., would NEVER fly in Florida.

  10. We Assume This Is Not Intentional: In the background of this photo, you can see the logo NBC used for last night's event:

    It says 'NBC News: Decision 2024,'
the word 'decision' and the '24' are in blue, the '20' is in red.

    Note that the "20" is rendered in a different color. We presume that was just to create "variety," visually, although that technique is supposed to create emphasis. In other words, the logo could be read as reminding you that these candidates are running for president in 2024, and not 1924 or 1824. Truth be told, given some of the things said on stage last night, that reminder does have some value.

That's what we've got for now. It takes a fair chunk of time to watch the debate and then write about it, so we'll have the results for our little debate game, plus election reports from readers, tomorrow. If we tried to pull it off for today, this post wouldn't go live until lunchtime. (Z)

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