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Deep Debate Thoughts
A Modest Attempt at Instant Analysis
Some thoughts about the first Republican debate:
It was a good night for the Republican Party. Mostly because Trump wasn’t there. In fact, it was a revelation: this is what the party might look like when not mangled and manhandled by The Donald. The candidates offered a plausible political product—a good conversation, with substantive differences, about inflation, energy, government spending, foreign policy, abortion, fentanyl. Very little anti-woke talk. Not a word about gender fluidity. The candidates made a strong case—one that might work against Biden—on inflation and energy (more on the latter below). This was a valuable civic exercise. It was also a relief. And I wonder: Will some Republican voters now realize that their party is crippled by the clown show? Are they eager to start talking about this stuff, not him? Nikki Haley got to the heart of the matter, as she so often did during the debate:
“We have to look at the fact that three-quarters of Americans don't want a rematch between Trump and Biden. And we have to face the fact that Trump is the most disliked politician in America. We can't win a general election that way.”
It was a bad night for Donald Trump. He wasn’t there. He wasn’t missed. There were whole swatches of debate time when he was wasn’t mentioned. I’ve been wondering if his big polling numbers are an ephemeral combination of notoriety, middle-finger reflex response to the liberal establishment and the absence of a plausible alternative. It may be wishful thinking—his core cult isn’t going away— but it’s possible Trump’s numbers will recede as the actual voting approaches. Karl Rove, perhaps the smartest GOP strategist, seems to be having the same twinges. And what about that vaunted Tucker Carlson interview? The big byte from Trump was this, about January 6:
“People in that crowd said it was the most beautiful day they ever experienced. There was love and unity. I have never seen such spirit and such passion and such love. And I’ve also never seen, simultaneously and from the same people, such hatred at what they’ve done to our country.”
Yecch. What noxious baloney. It seems, counterintuitively, both vile and stale. Are people getting tired of hearing Donald go on about this? None of the other candidates seem willing to indulge the Anti-American sedition that the election was stolen. If nothing else, the debate demonstrated that it is not only possible to move on from Trump, but that the absence of his suffocating sociopathy might be a real relief for a critical mass of Republicans.
Nikki Haley’s got game. The post-debate chatter was all about Ramaswamy—I’ll get to him in a bit—but Haley was the revelation: smart, sharp, tough, even a little courageous. The best way for a politician to establish credibility is a willingness to tell you something—at least one thing—you don’t want to hear. Haley did this twice: on the Republican role in bloating the deficit and on abortion. She wasn’t so good on Trump—though she did say Pence did the right thing on January 6—but that was probably the better part of valor, given this crowd. She was particularly effective on abortion, talking truth about the politics of it but, more important, expressing sympathy for the women caught in this moral bind. If I’m a Republican woman, I’ve just found my candidate. Haley was solid on foreign policy, too. She schooled Ramaswamy, made him seem the precocious worm that he is. She showed she can stand toe-to-toe with the boys. I suspect this performance will have an impact on big Republican donors looking for an alternative to DeSantis.
The Old White Men Seemed…Old. Pence was feisty, but ghostly pale and very much a senior citizen, dragging himself slowly through his talking points. Even Chris Christie seemed sluggish, without his usual blood lust. His attack on Trump was predictable (and so was the audience’s booing). His “ChatGPT” slash at Ramaswamy seemed pre-cooked and wasn’t very effective. His best moment was his praise for Pence’s actions on January 6. There were two other old men cluttering the stage: Asa Hutchinson and Doug Burgum. Hutchinson simply does not have the chops for this. Burgum seemed every inch a Secretary of Agriculture, the Republican Tom Vilsack.
The Young White Men were energetic, but off. Appearances matter. Ron DeSantis presents as an android. He has an unfortunate voice, too much in his throat, too little in his chest. There is no warmth to it, or to him. His slap-down of the Fox moderators’ attempt to elicit a show of hands on climate change was probably his best moment: “Look, we’re not school children. Let’s have the debate. I’m happy to start.” DeSantis seemed to be reining in his anti-wokery—the word Disney didn’t pass his lips—and he didn’t have any bad or embarrassing moments, but he didn’t command the stage. He didn’t seem a President. Nor did the other young man on the stage…
Vivek. Oy. I’m amazed that so many of the post-game pundits thought he did well. I thought he was obnoxious, a stone cold snake-oil salesman. Too fast, too glib, a test-tube high school debater. He was Trump’s surrogate last night and, to my eye, he got trounced. But I may just be another old, tired white man. Pundits are predicting a bounce in the polls for Ramaswamy; if that happens, the Republicans really have consigned themselves to perpetual mock-ferocity. I suspect this may prove exhausting over time.
It was a bad night for electric cars. The batteries are made in China, a plausible two-birds, one-stone line of attack against Biden. One can imagine the Trump line: Electric cars are as Chinese as Covid. The most convincing forays against Biden and the Democrats also involved inflation and energy—high gasoline prices. The Republican answer on this was, as always, drill baby drill…but that’s a more appealing strategy in inflationary times. I wrote a few weeks ago about a possible backlash against electric cars; what I didn’t realize, until last night, that this might be a significant political issue in 2024. Climate change is real, of course. And Haley was courageous to say so. But greenery is an abstract, difficult issue, especially as the long, hot summer wanes.
Another couple of birds: Mexico and Fentanyl. People have been asking me: why not take military action—drone attacks, special ops—against fentanyl factories in Mexico? I’m still mulling it over. Military action almost always has unintended consequences, but we’re dealing with a real national security threat here. Mexico is a fabulous country, one of my favorites; but the government is hopelessly corrupt, to the detriment of the Mexican people. We seem to have learned our lesson when it comes to overthrowing unsavory regimes, but are there other, less drastic—but forceful—actions to be taken? At the very least, the combination of the Southern Border disorder and America’s fentanyl crisis should be catnip for Republican politicians, given the Democrats’ silence on both. This could be a big issue in 2024.
Tim Scott was also onstage. Allegedly.
Instant analysis is like ice-skating: it can be entertaining, but it skims the surface. It is, essentially, theater criticism—but it is unavoidable and, the most immediate and sometimes crucial part of covering politics. If you find my eyes and ears useful, please join the Sanity tribe…and pledge your financial support to the effort. I will be activating the pledge button on September 1, but you can do this: