The Third GOP Debate

The Third GOP Debate
With the world virtually in flames in Israel, Ukraine, Africa, and elsewhere, it may appear somewhat distracting to focus on the media sideshow that is a Republican presidential primary debate. Yet it is an unavoidable fact that, in just under a year, the U.S. will hold what may be one of our country’s most consequential presidential elections – the most consequential election at least since 1932, maybe even since 1860.
Meanwhile, as if to give us all an early vision of a possible post-2024, Trump-restoration apocalypse, the House of Representatives has recently elected as its Speaker a 2020 election denier.  At the same time, events like the predictable end of former Vice President Pence’s presidential campaign illustrate that, despite the pointless pretense of the ongoing Republican primary competition, the Trump reelection train has long since left the station and is speeding on-track to the Republican nomination – with a plausibly good chance, if the polls are to be believed, to arrive as scheduled at the White House terminal twelve months from now.
As these events illustrate, there are now virtually no more « normal » Republicans in office, at least none able or willing to make any significant difference. Gone also are most of those other famous « guardrails » we heard so much about during Trump’s first term. As he has clearly stated, « on November 5, 2024, we’re going to stand up to the corrupt political establishment. we’re going to evict a totally corrupt president, Joe Biden, from the White House. And we’re going to finish the job that we started. »
All this demonstrates the deeply damaged, institutionally wounded nature of our political culture, of which last night’s weirdly irrelevant debate was another illustration. At least the number of candidates on the stage had mercifully been reduced!
Of course, having only five candidates on stage was an improvement. This time too the moderators made some effort to control the flow of the debate and prevent cross-talking – another improvement. It was, undoubtedly, the most substantive and serious of the three debates so far.
That said, in the absence of Trump, right from the start Vivek tried to turn the whole thing into a circus. Even given the primarily performative character of these debates, he was extreme. He was by far the most aggressive of the debaters, attacking Haley (whose area of greatest strength is foreign policy) as a Cheney in heels. He tried to combine aggressiveness with his neo-isolationism, suggesting that the U.S. supports Ukraine because Ukraine bribed Hunter Biden and going so far to call Zelensky a « Nazi » and « a comedian in cargo pants. » 
Vivek was more about name-calling and insults than policy. Chris Christie came closest to speaking sensible and calmly on foreign policy. As expected, Haley was strong on foreign policy, but at times she (along with Tim Scott) sounded like classic neo-cons excessively eager for war with Iran.
On entitlement reform, surprisingly Christie advocated turning social security into a means-tested, safety-net program. (Of course, the fact that social security is universal has been one reason it has succeeded and is popular – unlike programs which specifically serve the needy and which have historically been much less popular for that reason.) On raising the retirement age, Scott was the only one who made the fundamental point that those doing a lifetime of physical labor may need to retire earlier than others. 
In the end, it probably doesn’t matter much what happened on that stage last night.  Vivek demonstrated his malevolence and De Santis and Scott their superficiality. Haley and Christie demonstrated competence. If the debate had a « winner, » the closest to a « winner » would probably be Christie, who spoke the most like a « normal » Republican » and, of course, probably has the absolutely least chance of any of them to get the nomination. Nothing that happened tonight seems likely to change that for him – or, for that matter, for any of them in a party which has seemingly unreservedly accepted Donald Trump as its lord and savior.
On balance, a predictably dispiriting evening!