Debating the Debatable Merits of Debates
Four candidates are getting pretty desperate to give GOP primary voters any reason to abandon Donald Trump.
It’s getting awfully late in the Republican primary for anyone not named Donald Trump. So when every other remaining candidate not named Donald Trump gathered for last night’s NewsNation debate in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, each one was desperately hoping to make the kind of splash needed to separate from the pack and overtake the former president.
We’ll get to a couple of key exchanges in a minute, but first we’d like to provide some presidential primary context.
Iowa is and has long been the first in the nation when it comes to selecting presidential nominees. By definition, that makes winning there really important. Ron DeSantis in particular has put most of his eggs in the Iowa basket, visiting all 99 counties and shaking a lot of hands in hopes that he can dislodge Trump with a strong showing. But Iowa gets it wrong almost every time, at least if “right” means picking the eventual nominee.
In contested Iowa caucuses (i.e., without an incumbent president running unopposed) since 1976, voters chose the eventual nominee only three times — Gerald Ford in ‘76, Bob Dole in '96, and George W. Bush in 2000. In other words, that’s not a great sign for DeSantis even if he somehow pulls off a miracle while fourth and goal at the 31 yard line (this Auburn fan may or may not have just cursed the crimson team from Tuscaloosa).
Then again, maybe winning Iowa is also not a good sign for Trump if he maintains his lead.
New Hampshire, by the way, has a far better track record picking the eventual nominee, since 1976 failing only with Pat Buchanan in 1996 and John McCain in 2000.
For further perspective, as political analyst Jim Geraghty observed before the debate: “Whether you prefer DeSantis or [Nikki] Haley, your candidate is currently about 30 percentage points behind in Iowa, about 30 percentage points behind in New Hampshire, about 30 percentage points behind in South Carolina, and nearly 50 percentage points behind nationally. This is consistent across all pollsters. You can find Trump leads that are a few points smaller here and a few points larger here, but the overall picture is very clear. Trump is way ahead. DeSantis and Haley are well behind, fighting over a distant second place.”
That news is even worse for Chris Christie and Vivek Ramaswamy, though arguably both men are running more to make a point — Christie the Trump hater and Ramaswamy the Trump stand-in — than to win the nomination.
So, back to the debate. No one could have even hoped to have the kind of debate performance that would suddenly change a bunch of poll respondents’ minds and swing the race wildly in their favor.
None of them did, either, though that isn’t to say no one did well.
That record includes standing strong for kids against groomers, and he did so last night to perhaps the most enthusiastic applause of the evening. “As a parent, you do not have the right to abuse your kids,” he said. “This is cutting off their genitals, this is mutilating these minors, these are irreversible procedures. And this is something that other countries in Europe like Sweden, once they started doing it, they saw it did incalculable damage, they’ve shut it down. I signed legislation in Florida banning the mutilation of minors because it is wrong. We cannot allow this to happen in this country.”
He also paid perhaps the best backhanded compliment of the night to Trump. “Look, the media is making a big deal” over fears of a Trump dictatorship, DeSantis said. “I would just remind people that is not how he governed. He didn’t even fire Dr. [Anthony] Fauci. He didn’t fire Christopher Wray. He didn’t clean up the swamp. He said he was going to drain it. He did not drain it.”
However, while DeSantis rebuffed “the idea that we’re going to put someone up that’s almost 80,” he was unwilling to say Trump is unfit for office, which prompted thorough and effective mockery from Christie. Trump’s “conduct is unacceptable,” Christie said. “He’s unfit.” DeSantis didn’t say that because primary voters clearly don’t agree.
Ramaswamy landed a couple of big punches against his favorite target, Haley. One was for that big Democrat donor of hers. He even held up a sign reading “NIKKI = CORRUPT” in case anyone needed a visual aid. Another punch was for her being unable to name the Ukrainian provinces she specifically wants to defend, which undermined her touted foreign policy experience, something Ramaswamy cleverly noted isn’t the same as “foreign policy wisdom.” The trouble is that Haley has never called for U.S. troops on the ground, as Ramaswamy alleged.
Once again, however, Ramaswamy was booed for a ridiculous attack on Haley as being “the only person more fascist than the Biden regime.” She’s absolutely guilty of a free speech miscue for wanting to identify all anonymous online speakers, but she walked it back and it doesn’t hold a candle to the actual fascism of the Left.
Haley has enjoyed a boomlet in polling lately, so all three other candidates targeted her. She brushed it off, saying: “I love all the attention, fellas. Thank you for that.”
Arguably the worst moment for any candidate was Christie’s first question and answer, 17 minutes in. Moderator Megyn Kelly kneecapped Christie with a question that began by comparing his dismal approval rating of 25% to Trump’s 81%. “Voters may wonder how you could possibly become the nominee of a party that does not appear to like you very much,” Kelly asserted. That left a mark.
All in all, the big winner of the night once again appears to be Donald Trump. His decision to skip the debates makes the other candidates angry and leaves them to nastily attack each other, which continues to pay off for him.