You could almost hear the clock ticking as the minutes wound down until the 9 o’clock starting time and there was still no sign of former president Donald Trump in Milwaukee for the first “official” Republican presidential candidates’ primary debate Wednesday night.
The Fox News talking heads went through their standard “pre-game” routine and it looked to this observer as though they were trying very hard not to talk about Trump at all, which required a Herculean effort to ignore the 800-lb orange gorilla (Brett Baier called him the elephant) in the room – or at least the bombastic former president’s legendary ego and personality. It just goes to show that even when Donald Trump isn’t on site or on screen, he still commands more than his share of brain bandwidth for those covering the event or simply tuning in just to see what a presidential debate would be like without the preeminent figure in politics today.
Most politics junkies recall that Trump skipped a debate just days before the Iowa caucuses in 2016, but that intentional snub was under different horserace circumstances and memories fade. That occurrence might as well have been in the 20th century for all the relevance it has now. Trump purposely chose not to participate in Wednesday’s debate and he was blunt and specific in saying so.
But we shouldn’t give Trump all the credit for ruining or impacting the evening, because once debate moderators Brett Baier and Martha MacCallum were seated and started with the questioning, the program felt about as close to “normal” as we’re going to get in 2023. Those who weren’t watching Trump’s chat with Tucker Carlson on the X platform saw some good, if unspectacular, substantive discussion, including more than its share of contentiousness.
The Fox hosts’ first question regarded “Bidenomics” and the economy, referring to Virginian Anthony Oliver’s “Rich Men North of Richmond” song, an anthem that’s about as populist as it gets these days. The question went to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and away they went. Since this presentation is more like live blogging than a regular commentary, I’ll provide impressions of each of the eight candidates on stage in Milwaukee, and whether, in my opinion, they have any shot to establish themselves in the wholly unique 2024 Republican race:
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis:
For DeSantis, Wednesday’s debate must’ve felt like being at a youth sports travel ball tournament where there’s one team clearly more highly regarded than the others, and everyone watches that one team’s games to see if the challengers are in the top-tier category. It’s not quite as though DeSantis was alone on stage (and wondering where Trump was) to begin the event, but the ever present “stature gap” between a guy with real accomplishments – and the others -- was there nonetheless.
Personally, I thought many, many viewers last evening tuned in specifically to see whether they could envision DeSantis taking over for Trump as the head of the MAGA movement. DeSantis is the lone non-Trump competitor this season whose build-up matched his reputation. Some observers argued Ron had to win the Milwaukee debate. I didn’t agree, suggesting he needed a strong presence and the absence of any major mistakes to get what he needed from the first debate.
DeSantis has the life experience to handle the big stage and I thought his presentation was solid if not spectacular. His matter-of-fact speaking style is a tad monotonous, but everyone looks that way next to Trump. Gov. Ron will continue to battle the impression that he’s not likable, and I think he’s yet to settle on a political persona that appeals to the masses. I think he’ll get there, but it will take a few debates to prove he’s got the gravitas to be president.
DeSantis was positioned next to Vivek Ramaswamy and, in my opinion, was outshined at times by the young(er) firebrand. But when DeSantis spoke, he repeatedly talked about what they’d done in Florida, which is the reason why people were so excited about him running for president. He largely ignored the Trump subject, except DeSantis did dig about COVID lockdowns and not firing Anthony Fauci. And his answer about “climate change” and government response to disasters was spot on.
Is DeSantis’s candidacy an “acquired taste”? That might be the best way to put it. Face it, we’re conditioned to older leaders (with Barack Obama being a slight exception). After two terms of Trump and Biden, DeSantis looks like he could still be in college. Perhaps he has to “grow into” the role.
Business entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy:
Vivek Ramaswamy kind of “lucked” into the title of main outsider for this campaign, a title that was enhanced by the fact that Trump was the first to officially announce his campaign last year. Most outsiders probably figured they couldn’t outdo the former president in this capacity and didn’t even launch a campaign.
But Ramaswamy is good at it – darn good at it. He’s young and vibrant and is never at a loss for words. Because he’s not a politician his record isn’t easily discoverable, though more publications are taking notice of him and making the race’s main curiosity into a legitimate contender.
His fast and furious speaking style is a little less effective in a debate setting as it almost seems like he’s trying to cram his answers into the allotted time, and his plethora of yet unproven but still solid ideas aren’t easily encapsulated into small sentences. This is something Trump does very well, and I think Ramaswamy will improve with more seasoning.
Ramaswamy’s overabundance of ideas could get him in trouble, since his lack of political seasoning has already resulted in a few gaffes that were highly avoidable, such as his comments regarding federal agents on the 9/11 airplanes. As his first debate performance demonstrated, he’s highly likable and relatable, the kind of guy who you’d want to be your boss – and also a stellar dinner party guest. Can he keep the controversial stuff under control?
In the evening’s best jab, Chris Christie said Ramaswamy “sounds like ChatGPT”. Ramaswamy was by far the candidate who was attacked the most.
Vivek clearly has a future in politics if he wants one. But politics is a long-haul, not a short sprint. Patience, Vivek. Work on encapsulating your ideas into smaller packages. And continue smiling a lot, it works.
Vice President Mike Pence:
Mike Pence was Mike Pence on Wednesday night. Through years of experience seeing Mike Pence speak, conservatives know to expect a capable man who isn’t flashy, which served as a welcome contrast to the impulsive Trump. Pence, on the other hand, looks like he wouldn’t raise his voice even if there was a fire.
Somewhat surprising on Wednesday was Pence’s demeanor on January 6th. Mike’s answered questions on the subject a million times but still appears as though he hasn’t quite settled on an effective way to address the topic. Yes, we know he didn’t feel he had the constitutional authority to reject the state electors, and we also understand that he diverged with Trump on the matter.
The others were asked, by show of hands, if they thought Pence did the right thing on that day. Not all of them did, but the gist was that Biden won the election, if not unfairly. To my ears, the subject of election integrity and doing something to combat mail-in ballot cheating did not come up.
Pence comes off as the “elder statesman” of the group. He took a dig at Ramaswamy – as did Nikki Haley later on in the program – for being too inexperienced. Pence clearly didn’t appreciate being lectured by the much younger “outsider” candidate, bringing up the fact Ramaswamy has only voted twice in his life in presidential elections.
I don’t think Pence made gains vis-à-vis the others, but having him there was beneficial. His only major mistake, in my opinion, was his fierce defense of sending more money to Ukraine, a position, which I believe disqualifies him with the conservative grassroots.
Former U.N. Ambassador (in the Trump administration) Nikki Haley:
Speaking of Ukraine… Some would probably say that Nikki Haley has been running for president for quite a while now. As the first Indian-American female governor of South Carolina, she leaped into the political spotlight as soon as her career started to take off.
Her problem was that she didn’t establish herself as a true conservative from the get-go, instead morphing into a “go along to get along” type who was too wary of confrontation and focus groups not liking her. But there’s no doubt she has a stage presence, particularly on foreign policy, clearly where her passion lies.
Few people recall how effective Haley can be in this type of forum, and the fact that she’s the only female on stage certainly doesn’t hurt her. Perhaps because of her gender, Nikki tries a bit too hard to sound tough, which is hard to do for a woman in her age group. Some women can get away with the “I’m at least as immovable as the nastiest man” spiel, but not Haley. And if that sounds sexist… well, observations are observations.
Haley gave a very politically realistic answer to the abortion question, suggesting the subject will never be acted upon until there are enough senators to pass a ban, and that she wants to try and find that point. (I think all competitors pretty much agreed a 15-week ban was possible and the topic needs to be pinned on the radical “until the moment of birth” position of the Democrats.)
Is Nikki Haley tough enough? Hillary Clinton could sound tough, but she had to be after a lifetime of being married to Big Bubba Bill. America is definitely ready for a woman president, but I don’t think it’s going to be Nikki Haley (and pray to God it isn’t Kamala Harris).
South Carolina Senator Tim Scott:
If the only thing most people considered when they ran for president was “likability” in a candidate, Tim Scott would win the race going away. Part of the reason is the senator doesn’t “look” like a politician (no, don’t freakout, it’s not a racial thing) and doesn’t speak like one either, his “preaching” style more akin to the pulpit than the political lectern.
But as was evident Wednesday and throughout the early part of the campaign, Scott seems like he doesn’t have much more than his inspiring life story and steady rise through the political ranks to justify his run for president. His grasp of policy seems solid enough, though it also appears as if he’s speaking more as a legislator than the leader of the nation. That’s going to be tough to overcome.
And while it could be argued that Ron DeSantis’s stage presence is a tad too “stiff”, Tim Scott’s is a tad too “loose”. Scott speaks as though he has nothing to lose, which maybe he doesn’t. His message is welcome and quite apart from that of Donald Trump and the bomb-throwers. There is no confrontation there – and that’s a problem.
Scott “disappeared” for large gaps in the debate – not his fault – but he was overshadowed by Ramaswamy and the more aggressive candidates.
Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie:
In contrast, former Garden State governor Chris Christie is an un-likable as Tim Scott is likable. For regular American politics watchers, Christie’s ultra-direct speaking style is familiar and, to some extent, welcome. But once you get passed the quality of his presentation, which he honed over decades as a federal prosecutor and then as a politician, Christie comes across as a big fat blowhard.
Christie looks directly at whomever he’s speaking to and points fingers – literally, which doesn’t win him friends. He also leans on his lectern, which looks kind of too casual, as though he’s a lawyer speaking to a witness.
Christie spares nothing when speaking about former president Trump, but he basically just repeats points from Trump’s opponents since the end of his presidency. Most people recognize that Christie was denied any meaningful position in the Trump administration, and clearly the large man still harbors resentment. And he got booed a lot by the Milwaukee audience.
Christie’s moment was being asked by Martha MacCallum about UFO’s during the “Lightning Round” near the end of the program. It was funny. When Christie uses humor, he’s most endearing (like the ChatGPT comment, which even made Ramaswamy smile).
Christie was effective in pressing home his “we need a change” message, but his personal appearance along with his unpleasant sounding accent don’t lend themselves to much likability. Trump is “harsh” in a similar way, yet he is approachable. Christie is not. Former North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum:
Going in, there was a question as to whether former North Dakota governor Doug Burgum would even be there, he having ruptured his Achilles tendon playing basketball (he did joke about how people told him to “break a leg” at the debate).
It took awhile for Burgum to get a chance to talk, but he mostly took advantage of his opportunities, being the candidate who was most forceful about the dangers posed by China, electric car batteries, etc. Doug clearly leans on his Midwestern roots, having mentioned that he came from a “town of 300 people” at least a half dozen times (or so it seemed), which would help him relate to the little guy (I guess).
Burgum’s probably going to get more than his share of memes due to his thick eyebrows, which make him look like Burt of Sesame Street fame. He was a pleasant surprise in his introduction to the national audience, yet was not quite up to the stature of some of the others. Doug could get a percentage point or two boost from the debate. Wait and see.
Former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson:
As probably the most shining representative of the “Why is he there?” group, Asa Hutchinson failed at his main mission on Wednesday night: to “introduce” himself as a man who opposes the nastiness under Donald Trump, but who’s also been in and around politics and government for a long, long time.
He also was the lone candidate (which included Chris Christie) to say he wouldn’t vote for Donald Trump if the former president was the GOP’s nominee. A weak move, for sure.
Hutchinson reeks of “establishment”. Put him in a suited crowd that includes Mitt Romney, Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Paul Ryan and the rest of the Republican bluebloods and Hutchinson would seem right at home. He’s the type of guy who stands behind a leader at a press conference – a goon with little to say and there purely to support the main speaker.
Despite the fact he was governor of Arkansas, Hutchinson doesn’t seem like a prime candidate for an executive position. Nothing about him screams “Charge! Take that hill! Come on boys, rally ‘round the flag!” His gentile southern accent would be more at home sipping mint juleps on the plantation house’s veranda rather than someone who gets his hands dirty building and fixing stuff. He’s so mild and nice he’s a good candidate to send the kids for a weekend away for mom and dad, but is this the guy you’d want sitting across from Xi Jinping or Vladimir Putin? Or Kim Jong Un?
One other thing – Hutchinson’s eyes were red, reminiscent of senile Joe Biden’s during the 2020 Democrat debates. One family observer said he looked like the devil. A major no-show, perhaps, but not demonic. Why was he there? A man without a reason.
Quick takeaways from the Milwaukee debate:
Let’s talk about Joe Biden and the Democrats, not about Donald Trump and 2020
Candidates spend WAY too much time talking about the January 6th subject and Trump’s legal problems and not enough emphasis on the real political enemy. Vivek Ramaswamy is not a 9/11 “Truther”, but he needs to guard against being seen as an outside the mainstream conspiracy theorist
The young idea man runs the risk of being seen as off the radar, which counteracts his other, excellent qualities.
Could Pence be laying the groundwork for a 2028 campaign?
Mike Pence is a good man, but there’s the feeling that this isn’t his time. His neoconservative foreign policy views don’t help.
The clear “backup plan” for the GOP is still Ron DeSantis, so in effect, he “won” the debate.
None of the non-DeSantis candidates leaped out of the screen – except for Vivek Ramaswamy -- so it’s hard to see a polling bump for any of them. Does this make them all “losers” of the debate?
Vivek Ramaswamy caused waves when he said, “I’m the only one on this stage who’s not bought and paid for.” It may or may not be true, but Wednesday night’s debate probably won’t make a heck of a lot of difference in the big scheme of things. There was more than enough good, substantive discussion. But without Donald Trump, the non-Trump group has trouble with relevancy.
Joe Biden economy
Biden cognitive decline
January 6 Committee
Build Back Better
Marjorie Taylor Green
2024 presidential election