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Donald Ducks Daffy Debate

Any "debate" that involves Donald Trump invariably turns into a train wreck, since he talks out of turn, goes off on constant tangents, and spends most of his time taking cheap potshots. Last night, the seven Republicans who "debated" at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library each tried to make the case that they can be Trump v2.0. And in one way, they did an excellent job of it. They showed that they too can ruin a "debate" by talking out of turn, going off on constant tangents, and taking cheap potshots.

If readers did not see it, and for some reason are gluttons for punishment, well... you can watch here if you're willing to give Fox an e-mail address (perhaps consider a 10 Minute Mail burner account). Alternatively, you can watch here if you want (or can tolerate) a split screen where the debate is on the left and progressive pundit Brian Tyler Cohen is on the right, offering his comments. There's no clean copy available right now because Fox is aggressively asserting its copyright.

In any event, it was just... awful. Torturous. Worse than spending 2 hours in the dentist's chair. Let us count the ways:

  1. No Trump: It's hardly a novel observation that a debate held without the runaway frontrunner is kind of a waste of time. The candidates on stage could maybe make the evening worthwhile, politics-wise, if they were willing to actually take on the former president in absentia. But while there was a little more of that than the last time, there was not much more. It was still the kid gloves approach, mostly.

  2. Everybody Hates Vivek: On the other hand, the other six folks on stage clearly loathe Vivek Ramaswamy. There were some very testy moments, and several of the non-Ramaswamy candidates had clearly read the Marc Thiessen hit piece in The Washington Post, which talks about how Ramaswamy and his firm were doing business with China as late as 2021. Nikki Haley, Mike Pence and Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) all brought that issue up. Haley also told Ramaswamy that every time she hears him speak, she feels a little dumber. Ouch, although if she's going to steal the speech from Billy Madison, she might as well steal the whole thing, because it's funnier that way. Adam Sandler is (reportedly) a Republican, so he won't mind.

    Perhaps Ramaswamy saw this coming, because while he slurred his opponents as "bought and paid for" at the last debate, he said multiple times last night that everyone who was on stage is a good person, and that Democrats are the real enemy. We do not think this will make the other Republicans feel warm and fuzzy about him.

  3. Nothing New: We listened to the entire debate, as painful as it was. And we're not sure we heard a single proposal, a single opinion, a single... anything related to policy that we had not heard before. What's the point of repeating, yet again, the things that everyone has already heard? We get it. China is evil. The wide-open border is responsible for millions of people dying from fentanyl overdoses. Joe Biden should be curing cancer or securing world peace or unlocking the secrets of cold fusion instead of what he's actually doing. Get some new talking points, folks. (With this said, they did disagree on one thing, namely Ukraine.)

  4. It's Not a Dictatorship: To the extent that there were policy proposals—and again, there weren't many—we don't think we heard a single thing that could actually get through Congress. Whether it's Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) talking about a $25/hour minimum wage or it's every Republican on stage talking about converting the entire American educational establishment to a voucher-based system, what's the point if none of it will ever come to pass?

  5. Paradise... or Hellscape?: In addition to a lack of clarity about what the candidates would actually do as president, and what differentiates them from one another, our head was also left spinning by the conflicting generalizations about the United States. On one hand, the American dream is alive and well (Sen. Tim Scott, R-SC), capitalism is the greatest economic system ever created (Ramaswamy) and Americans are the greatest innovators ever (Chris Christie). On the other hand, America is in a state of decay (DeSantis), its economy is on the brink of ruin (Christie), and it's been in decline since the Great Society (Scott). So... which is it?

  6. Uncontrolled: Maybe three-moderator setups are just not a good idea, because there's effectively nobody in charge. Or maybe it was just this particular three-moderator setup. In any event, the trio—Fox's Dana Perino, Fox Business' Stuart Varney and Univision's Ilia Calderón—had absolutely no control over the debate. We do not know how they chose which candidate got which question, but there was no rhyme or reason to it, as far as we could detect. That said, it hardly mattered, because any candidate who wanted to speak up did so, whether they had the floor or not. Often, there were three or four or five candidates all talking at once. And this was not an infrequent thing—it must have happened at least a dozen times, if not more. And it often went on for 20-30 seconds.

    The moderators also don't seem to have been paying attention to the clock. They apparently had a "hard" finish time of 8:00 p.m., and when that time was reached, they just ended the debate, while the people on stage were in the middle of bickering about a question. There were no closing statements, it just... ended.

  7. Make It a Tercet... Or Not: The moderator trio did have a couple of gimmicks up their sleeves, both of which landed with a thud. They had choreographed their first question, such that each took turns reading portions of it. That came off as corny and contrived. Then, near the end, before the sudden "good night!" they tried to get the seven people on stage to "vote one candidate off the island," in the style of the show Survivor. This was planned far enough in advance that there were Sharpie pens and note cards for each of the candidates to cast their votes. However, this was so silly that the candidates refused to play along.

    Beyond those two bits of poorly conceived stagecraft, however, there was zero indication that the three moderators were working as a team. No wonder they struggled to keep control.

  8. Carnac the Magnificent: Most readers will remember the old Carson bit where he'd put on an oversized turban, and as the ostensibly psychic Carnac the Magnificent, would offer up incongruous answers to questions sealed in envelopes. This greatly amused the TV audiences of the 1960s and 1970s.

    We could not help but think of Carnac last night because, as part of the moderators' lack of control, they were almost entirely unable to compel the candidates to actually answer the questions that were asked. Perhaps most obviously, there were at least four occasions where a candidate was asked about school choice (generally), and somehow managed to turn the question into a rant about trans students using the right bathrooms.

  9. Ministry of Information: We will concede the moderators did come with some tough questions. Undoubtedly, they walked away feeling like "serious journalists." However, they almost invariably used extremely partisan framing (especially Perino). Things like: "All Americans are horrified by the state of the country's big cities, so what would you do to try to clean up the mess?" That's not a direct quote, but it's a pretty good paraphrase of one of Perino's queries. The person who benefited most from this approach, beyond the folks at Fox (who always like to stir the pot), is Trump. This way, the "horrors" of the Biden years get out there, and so too does the non-Trump candidates' lack of answers to those "horrors."

  10. Lies, Lies... I Can't Believe a Word You Say: With apologies to The Knickerbockers, the seven folks on stage made it easy for CNN's Daniel Dale and the other fact checkers of the world to fill as many column inches as is necessary, since the falsehoods were just constant.

    To take an example, Mike Pence decreed that he, as vice president, played a major role in reducing undocumented immigration by 90%. Is there any part of that sentence that anyone thinks is true? Similarly, Vivek Ramaswamy claimed that there are semi-trucks full of fentanyl coming to the U.S. through secret tunnels that run underneath the border fence. Strange nobody has snapped a photo of these secret tunnels, since that would probably nab a Pulitzer. DeSantis, for his part, resumed his habit of telling "personal" anecdotes that we seriously doubt. For example, he lamented a situation where a family with a baby rented an Airbnb, the previous occupants left some fentanyl behind, and the baby found it and ate it and died. Could have happened, we suppose, but we are quite skeptical. Similarly, the Governor claimed that while walking to the debate, he talked to three different people who have been mugged (ipso facto, crime is out of control). We find it hard to accept that people can just walk up to DeSantis to share their mugging stories, as he's out and about. Also, he must not know that Simi Valley, where the Reagan Library is located, is retired cop central. It is... improbable that a mugger would set up shop there.

  11. Republicans Aren't Funny: When (Z) was first learning the ropes of being a teacher, one of the best professors in his department said: "If you're actually funny, that can be a great thing in a classroom. But if you're not funny, and you try to be, it will go over like a lead balloon."

    The well-established stereotype is that Republicans aren't funny. We've seen very little evidence, since St. Ronnie of Reagan went to the big White House in the sky, to call that into question (and yes, we have seen episodes of the godawful Gutfeld). The folks on stage last night also did nothing to dispel us of the notion. Christie had the most memorable bon mot of the night, we suppose, when he declared that if Trump keeps skipping debates, he'll become known as "Donald Duck." The problems: (1) it's not that great a line, (2) Christie delivered it badly, and (3) Christie's smirk at the end made it clear he thinks it's the cleverest line since Carson and "I didn't even know he was Jewish." Can't laugh at your own jokes, Chris—it ruins the magic. Among other examples, Christie's line about how Mexico probably would have paid for the wall if they would have known it would only be 52 miles didn't really land, while Mike Pence's attempt to be bawdy by observing that he's been sleeping with a teacher for 38 years was just cringeworthy.

  12. Fire the IT Guy: One last gripe. Whoever did the sound for the debate should be fired. It was tinny and often had an echo, and some people (particularly Calderón) were very hard to hear. In addition, whoever did the green-screening should join the sound guy in the unemployment line. It looked just awful, like the candidates had been transported back to a world where only 1980s TV technology exists, and so everyone has a slight halo around them. Although we guess that's kind of apropos for a library dedicated to an 80s president.

In short, it was not entertaining, it was not enlightening, it was not interesting, it was not inspiring. We have been following politics long enough to know that you have to go into these things with very modest expectations. But even then, it was just lousy.

Before we leave the headache behind, however, we will offer a few remarks on each of the seven candidates. And we're going to list them from "best performance" (in our view) to "worst performance," although with the caveat that "best performance" is a relative term on a night like last night:

  1. Christie: Christie appears to be slowly returning to his original plan of going after Donald Trump. It didn't happen a lot last night, but it did happen 3-4 times, which is about as many as the other six candidates combined. He's also one of two candidates on stage who sounded like a grown-up more often than not, even if he too indulged far too often in tired Republican talking points.

  2. Haley: Haley was the other grown-up on stage. She started poorly, including a bunch of sniping with Ramaswamy. However, she gave a couple of answers on China, Russia and Ukraine near the end of the evening that were the closest thing to serious policy that was on display last night.

  3. Scott: He usually seems like a nice enough fellow, although even he was taking potshots at Ramaswamy. In any event, he rarely has anything useful to say on policy (last night, his big thing was talking about how the Trump border wall needs to be completed), and when he looks into the camera and says that while he's suffered from discrimination a bunch, but America is not a racist country, we wonder what the heck his theory of his presidential run is. The ostensible plan is to attract Black voters to the GOP banner. But most Black voters do not think we are in a post-racial America, as yet.

  4. DeSantis: We're now well into various gradations of "really bad." It is possible that DeSantis is a cow, because several times as he pondered questions put to him, he looked like he was chewing his cud. Maybe he and former representative Devin Nunes should chat. Beyond that, however, he's the most frighteningly extreme person on that stage, with the exception of Ramaswamy. Talking about things like invading Mexico on his first day in office will not win over moderate voters. Also, to adapt Joe Biden's line about Rudy Giuliani, every sentence out of DeSantis' mouth has three parts: a noun, a verb and Florida. We understand that he's running on his record as Governor. But doesn't he understand that voters aren't really all that interested in hearing what he did for the Sunshine State, and are much more interested in what he's going to do for them? He did take one shot at Trump, very early on, so that's different, at least.

  5. Ramaswamy: If there were a big headline next week that six of the candidates on stage were real people, and the seventh was actually AI-generated, we'd put all our money on Ramaswamy as the fake. He is so over-scripted and so over-coached that it barely seems like a person is speaking. It does not help that whoever is writing his talking points does not seem to have grasped that spoken language and written language are different. So, anytime Ramaswamy speaks, it sounds like he's reading from a position paper or his diary. Oh, and it's really remarkable that he's decided that promising to get rid of birthright citizenship is a winner. When you scapegoat undocumented immigrants, well, those folks can't vote. When you scapegoat birthright citizens, well, those folks can.

  6. Pence: When Dwight D. Eisenhower was asked to name one useful thing that Richard Nixon had done for the administration, the then-President said "If you give me a week, I'll think of one." Well, if you asked us to name a more boring human being than Mike Pence, we could probably come up with someone, if you give us a week. Even when he was opening fire on his opponents, like noting that Ramaswamy stopped doing business with China a couple of years ago, which is the same time Ramaswamy finally found time to start voting in presidential elections, we were on the verge of falling asleep.

    When the former VP talks to his campaign staff about how they're going to win this thing, what does he say? We can concoct scenarios for any of people #1 through #4 on this list (even if some of those scenarios strain credulity). We cannot concoct any sequence of events that ends with President Pence.

  7. Burgum: On each of the (rare) occasions that Burgum was on camera, we kept humming the song "Don't You (Forget About Me)," by Simple Minds. Burgum spoke less than any other person on stage, and it wasn't particularly close (7m 39s; next least was Pence with 9m 38s; while Ramaswamy got the most airtime with 12m 30s). And even to get that much time, Burgum had to speak out of turn (several times) and seize the floor when it wasn't his. Also, and we don't know why, he looked about 10 years older at this debate than he did at the one last month. Truth be told, between his somewhat sunken face and his sweaty sheen, we would guess he's got a cold or something like that. In any event, he was entirely forgettable in what may well be his final debate.

That's how we have it. Because of teaching schedules, it wasn't possible to put together another Bingo-style game for this one. For the next one, however, we're going to have to come up with something, just in order to get through it without giving ourselves the Oedipus treatment. (Z)

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