What is to be said about yesterday’s weird first GOP debate of this 2024 election season? Even before the debate had begun, wasn’t it already weird that the acknowledged frontrunner was absent from the stage? Wasn’t it also weird that the same frontrunner is campaigning with four (!) indictments over his head and is scheduled to surrender in Atlanta later today, presumably in prime time to suck the air out of any alternative balloons taking off after last night?
Absent, I think Trump was still very much missed by an audience that has become accustomed to being entertained and affirmed by his anger, hatred, and ill will (to use the familiar phrase from the old Litany of the Saints). Like the other famous TV character from Trump’s borough, Archie Bunker, Trump channels – better than most of his competition – the anger of the chronically disrespected and the hatred of the other that are the hallmarks of contemporary identity and grievance politics. (The left, of course, enjoys its own version of identity grievance politics, likewise rooted in anger and hatred.)
That said, there was plenty of anger, hatred, and ill will on display on stage last night in Milwaukee. When all is said and done, that is what the Republican Party is primarily about, whatever the fantasies of old-style « normie » Republicans who still care (or pretend to care) about budgets, spending, and deficits. That old time religion was briefly on display at the beginning of the debate. Despite the widespread media expectation that the debate would begin with a question about Trump, it began with a question about « Bidenomics. » In a sign of what was the come much of the rest of the night, former Governor Nikki Haley was the only one who represented the real world, pointing out that it was the Republicans who bore primary responsibility for so much recent spending and deficits.
In general, the questions reflected well on the moderators. They asked a range of appropriate questions and tried (with minimal success) to keep the contestants within the time rules. The reality is that there is no incentive for a candidate to observe the rules. So the only way to deal with that problem is to turn off the microphone as soon as a candidate’s time is up!
In general, Nikki Haley acquitted herself well. On spending, abortion, Trump, Ukraine, and foreign policy generally, she was again the closest thing to an adult in the room in recognizing the existing political realities, even when they conflict with the party-line within the Republican information bubble. She was especially effective on foreign policy against Vivek Ramaswamy, the young, generational-change candidate, who showed himself to be both full of himself and a good entertainer (maybe the greatest assets in a Trump cult) but otherwise not really ready for presidential prime time. If the point of these debates is for someone to emerge looking « presidential, » Nikki Haley came closest to doing that. I doubt she could win the Republican nomination; but, if she could, she might make a formidable obstacle on Biden’s road to reelection.
The other figure who performed surprisingly well and emerged looking a bit more « presidential » was former Vice President Mike Pence, in spite of his slobbering, super-sanctimonious, self-referential evangelicalism. Both Haley and Pence managed to come across as experienced political figures who had at least thought about the issues and maybe had some reason to be on that stage.
This was all in conspicuous contrast to the on-stage, ostensible front-runner, the charm-challenged Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who tried to evade giving direct answers and returned again and again to his Florida record. His one notable accomplishment was, of course to keep Florida’s schools open during covid, and that, maybe more than anything else, is what got him on that stage. But he seemed so angry and surprisingly small, far from « presidential. » He may have held his own, but he did nothing to advance his cause.
Senator Tim Scott did not live up to the good press he had been getting in some quarters. Former NJ Governor Chris Christie’s best moment was when he called Trump’s conduct beneath the office of President and responded the the audience’s boos by saying “This is the great thing about this country. Booing is allowed, but it doesn’t change the truth.”
Both when the audience booed and when the audience cheered, it was always obvious that the real front runner, the candidate the audience really wanted, was not there. The question going into the debate was whether any of the candidates was actually seriously seeking to depose Trump. Only Christie and former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson (who actually brought up the 14th amendment and was booed for it) could conceivably claim that mantle. Haley did boldly say that Trump is the most unpopular politician in the country, but she and the others (except for Christie and Hutchinson) all raised their hands to indicate that they would support Trump even if convicted of crime. (The one to do so most enthusiastically was, of course, the Trumpy demagogue Vivek, who also promised to pardon him!)
Again, the debate moderators deserve credit for at least asking some good questions, that represented an intrusion of reality into the FOX propaganda bubble. The best example of that , perhaps, was the second quesiton – a question on climate change asked by a young person, an acknowledgment of how serious that issue is for the rising generation. But the responses did not reflect either the real world relevance or the seriousness of the issue. There was a lot of evasive, deflecting of the issue, blaming India and China, as if that relieved Americans of the need to deal with the crisis. And the youngest candidate, Ramaswamy, displayed the greatest ideological hostility to responding to the crisis, an obvious moral disqualifier, which may well win hom extra points in alternative reality Republicanism.
The debate done, now the world’s attention turns, as it must, to the true Republican frontrunner and newsmaker, who will surrender himself at Fluton County, Georgia, Jail today.