First Republican Debate of 2024 Season
Vivek Ramaswamy's national coming out party was, well, interesting.
As has become my custom, I skipped last night’s debate and simply read about it this morning. There’s typically not much to be gained by watching the silly made-for-television scrums with too many non-serious candidates and that’s especially true when the odds-on favorite didn’t deign to participate. Still, we got some useful insights into those on the stage.
NPR senior political editor Domenico Montanaro (“5 takeaways from the first Republican primary debate“):
1. Trump won’t likely be hurt by not showing up, but the potential risk was highlighted.
Surprisingly, perhaps, almost all the candidates stood up for former Vice President Mike Pence and said he did the right thing on Jan. 6 in his ceremonial role in counting and recording the results of the 2020 presidential election.
Pence noted that Trump asked him to reject the votes and “asked me to put him over the Constitution, and I chose the Constitution.”
You can imagine that portion of the debate would have gone very differently if Trump was on that stage. The fact that everyone said Pence did the right thing, except Ramaswamy, really has to make Trump seethe, but the fact that the candidates felt like they could also says something.
Trump has a deep well of support among the GOP base and has huge leads in the polls. He likely won’t suffer from not being at this debate, but his pride may have just a little in that moment. It’s why there’s probably a higher likelihood after this debate than before it that Trump shows up to the next one. But anything’s possible with Trump.
2. We have to talk about Ramaswamy.
Who would have thought that at the beginning of this primary campaign that after the first GOP primary debate we’d be talking about a previously little-known former tech CEO, who wrote books about “woke” corporate culture.
Watching him, though, it was like watching the rise and metaphoric fall of a campaign in one night. At first, his fast-talking style dominated, but he was grating on the other candidates, and he was on his heels, especially on foreign policy.
“You are choosing a murderer over a pro-American country,” former Trump U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley fired at Ramaswamy for his position on the war in Ukraine. She added for punctuation, “You have no foreign policy experience and it shows. It shows.”
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, at one point, blasted him this way: “I’ve had enough of a guy who sounds like chatGPT.”
There is something to that. He did come across like a personification and channeling of the young, right-wing social media posters and podcasters – lots of opinions, but little experience in actually handling the things they’re professing expertise about.
3. Most of candidates embraced a pre-Trump “peace through strength” GOP position on foreign policy, but that’s not the heart of the party right now.
Yes, Haley and Pence got in their shots on Ramaswamy when it came to the Ukraine-Russia war. It was one of the strongest exchanges of the night for Pence before Haley stole his thunder.
But saying that most of the candidates on this particular stage agreed on a traditional GOP foreign policy, where the U.S. is the moral leader in the world, ignores that the top-three polling candidates in this primary – Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Ramaswamy – feel differently.
And that matters. They are channeling many in the base. There’s a clear generational divide in this GOP, especially on foreign policy. Trump has pushed this more isolationist, non-interventionist foreign policy, and it’s changed the Republican Party in many ways.
Ramaswamy is an eager disciple, and it’s a stance that many younger Republicans, who came of age after 9/11 or with little memory of it, echo. They simply don’t see the United States as needing to be the moral leader overseas the way the country did for decades after World War Two.
4. DeSantis faded into the background, and Haley sounded like an adult and serious candidate.
Judging solely on speaking time, how he answered questions and the lack of attacks on him, you would never know that DeSantis was the top polling candidate on this stage.
His campaign has been sputtering to this point. Wednesday night was an opportunity to shine out of the shadow of Trump, but instead DeSantis came off as wooden, practiced and awkward. He didn’t command the stage the way many Republicans – and powerful donors – might have hoped or expected.
On the other hand, Haley showed some humanity on the issue of abortion and forcefulness on foreign policy. But her campaign has not taken off to this point. She has lagged behind in fundraising and hasn’t gained tons of attention since the first few weeks of her campaign.
Despite a strong performance, she will likely still have a difficult time getting the nomination because she seems out of step with the pro-Trump wing of the party. She has to hope that the big donors who thought DeSantis would be the principal alternative to Trump abandon him and go to her.
5. The Trump counter programming didn’t seem to work this time.
For once in eight years of GOP politics, Trump didn’t command the spotlight.
He thought he was delivering a two-for-one jab with his interview with Tucker Carlson – one in the direction of Fox News since Carlson is no longer with the network, and one at the party establishment.
I haven’t paid much attention to Ramaswamy, who’s simply unqualified by resume to be taken seriously as a Presidential candidate. But, while he may indeed be a ChatGPT version of what the MAGA tribe wants to hear, his childish answers on fundamental questions disqualified him in my eyes. While most of the candidates dodged on climate change, which is still a controversial issue among the base, he went out of his way to beclown himself:
“Let us be honest as Republicans — I’m the only person on the stage who isn’t bought and paid for, so I can say this — the climate change agenda is a hoax,” he said.
Mr. Ramaswamy added, “And so the reality is more people are dying of bad climate change policies than they are of actual climate change.”
Contrast that with Haley’s dodge:
“Is climate change real?” she said. “Yes, it is. But if you want to go and really change the environment, then we need to start telling China and India that they have to lower their emissions.”
Which, while eliding the need for US leadership and action on the issue, has the virtue of being true. Those two countries have 2.8 billion people between them, after all, and much worse climate policies than ours. (In fairness, though, it’s probably unreasonable to ask developing countries to bear the brunt of the solution given our own outsized contribution to the problem.)
Haley’s dodge on abortion was also relatively artful:
Haley also ducked a direct answer on the question, as she has in the past, arguing that a national ban isn’t likely to garner the needed 60 Senate votes to pass. Instead, she called for narrower legislation.
“Can’t we all agree that we should ban late-term abortions? Can’t we all agree that we should encourage adoptions? Can’t we all agree that doctors and nurses who don’t believe in abortions shouldn’t have to perform them? Can’t we agree that contraception should be available? Can’t we all agree that we are not going to put a woman in jail or give her the death penalty if she gets an abortion?”
Ramaswamy’s answer on Ukraine was as befuddling as it was shameful:
“I find it offensive that we have professional politicians who will make a pilgrimage to Kyiv, to their pope, Zelenskyy, without doing the same for the people in Maui or the south side of Chicago,” he said, referring to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine.
Haley, again, took him on:
Those calls to stop Ukraine funding earned applause in the room, but were not shared by all candidates. Haley, a former U.N. ambassador under Trump, accused Ramaswamy of wanting to “hand Ukraine to Russia” and “let China eat Taiwan.”
“You are choosing a murderer” over an ally of the U.S., Haley said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“I wish you success on your future career on the boards of Lockheed and Raytheon,” Ramaswamy retorted, naming two large U.S. weapons manufacturers.
“You have no foreign policy experience and it shows,” Haley shot back, earning raucous applause in the arena.
Again, ultimately none of this likely matters. I find it hard to imagine the scenario where Trump is not the nominee. But Haley, Christie, and even Pence at least came across as plausible candidates who espoused policies and principles that would have been at home in the pre-Trump GOP. Poor Asa Hutchinson and Doug Burgum got essentially no mention in the press accounts—which was more surprisingly also true of Tim Scott.