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Thunderdome Debate Edition: Lightning Rod Vivek
The battle is joined
Welcome to Thunderdome, where at long last, the 2024 debate is joined by our would-be champions. And also Asa Hutchinson was there. The night held surprises for several candidates, including going against much of what prognosticators thought would happen. But how much does it mean without the presence of Donald Trump, who ditched the debate, did a pre-taped interview with Tucker Carlson that produced no news, and had his squad of surrogates rejected at the doors of the spin room? We discussed all of this, winners and losers, and more on the latest podcast — listen and subscribe today!
The long knives come out for Vivek
Vivek Ramaswamy’s debate strategy, just like his earned media strategy — this Politico profile shows his hectic pace — is based entirely on the Trump playbook. First, position yourself as the lone independent self-funded truthteller on stage amid a sea of compromised politicians. Don’t get mucked up with the policy details, just attack every issue with confidence that your instincts alone can win the argument. Ignore the rules to insert yourself in as many topics as possible. And when someone comes at you, dismiss and insult them. Repeat.
To the credit of the politicians who’ve actually won elections before, they weren’t about to let that form of Vivek happen in Milwaukee without confrontation. Chris Christie and Mike Pence took their shots, and Nikki Haley had one of her best moments of the night when she confronted the young rising star on his meandering foreign policy views. The young biotech executive became a lightning rod on the stage, attracting the most energy, but most of it negative, with even the crowd turning against him at points.
Overall, this was Vivek giving an extended version of his Twitter account and any of his hundreds of podcast interviews, interrupted regularly by people who questioned his wisdom and capacity for the job. It comes across as a plethora of ideas smashed together with references to everyone from Obama (“skinny kid with a funny name”) to Ron Paul (“revolution”).
For those who liked Vivek beforehand, nothing he said last night should dissuade you. But if you were expecting to be blown away by the upstart candidate on all the airwaves, his overall performance seemed more defensive than expected. As Nate Silver notes, he’s almost certain to rise in the polls given the increase in name ID associated with debate appearances — the question will be, whose voters does he take?
The one candidate who never targeted him in a significant way: Ron DeSantis, whose own super PAC had literally published memos urging him to do so. And about the Florida governor…
DeSantis steady as Scott slips
Best overall: Ron DeSantis. This is partly true because he needed it the most. If you saw this debate performance for DeSantis without knowing anything about the past few months, you’d assume he was in a solid position in the primary. There was no nervousness, no signs of wariness or behind-the-scenes upheaval — he came across as unflappable, well-prepared for every topic the moderators threw at him, and confident in a proven record. He also got back to talking about a broad range of issues, not just the battle with wokeness driving too much of his campaign. It remains to be seen, of course, if this is possible when standing side by side with Trump.
Worst overall: Tim Scott, again because of the expectations at play. He practically disappeared into the background — and he didn’t even show up in the spin room. His soaring speeches about up by your bootstraps American do-gooder spirit may work on the campaign trail, but it was out of place in a field of argument. He gave no indication that he was ready to tackle the hard challenges of the moment and seemed almost bored by the whole thing. A surprisingly poor debate from him could help boost the other South Carolinian chances for a moment, especially considering that this debate’s questions played to Nikki Haley’s strengths. If you view Scott and Haley as both being “establishment” candidates with strong appeal to the donor class, you’d much rather be on her side today.
The Trump-Pence factor
The anti-Fox News media critics were frustrated last night in real time because the focus of questions in the first hour avoided being all about Donald Trump… and instead on what Republican primary voters want to hear about. When they did turn to the topic, it essentially became an argument about how people view Mike Pence, and particularly if he did the right thing on January 6. This would’ve been a fascinating exchange if Trump himself were on the stage. Without him there, it turned into a cakeless office goodbye party for the former vice president.
Pence came across as feistier than his typical reserved self during the evening, even having to be brushed back by the moderators at times for interruption. This might be his only debate appearance, so it stands to reason that he’d try to get everything out there. But there’s no reason to believe that his performance won him any actual voters. He functioned instead as a martyr for the Constitution, with Chris Christie holding him up for his heroism. It seemed like a gold watch ceremony and came across as if few expect him to make future debate stages. Pence’s time is past, and his unpopularity among Trump fans makes his political future doubtful indeed.
Interestingly enough, Vivek was not asked the January 6 question — he has earlier refused to answer a version of it, telling Politico, “I would have never let it get to that point.” Like so many other Vivek comments, he didn’t explain how, but said in a post-debate huddle with journalists:
I think I would have done it very differently. I think that there was a historic opportunity that was missed, to settle a score in this country, to say that we’re actually going to have a national compromise on this single day voting on Election Day as a federal holiday… I think Congress should have acted in that window between November and January, to say it: paper ballots, government issued ID — and if that’s the case, then we’re not going to complain about stolen elections. And if I were there, I would have declared on January 7, saying ‘now I’m going to win in a free and fair election.’ Unlike what we saw with big tech and others stealing the election last time around… That’s what I would have done. But that’s what I’m going to be able to do as the next president, is unite this country.
One more thing
What was up with that question from the Young America’s Foundation representative? Speaking for YAF, debate partner Alexander Diaz asked: “Polls consistently show that young people’s number one issue is climate change. How will you as both president of the United States and leader of the Republican Party calm their fears that the Republican Party doesn’t care about climate change?” Come on, YAF — can’t you ask a question about Red China or TikTok or affirmative action in college admissions or woke higher ed or the Supreme Court? Instead we got just another version of Billiam the Snowman from Point Hope, Alaska.