The first debate is a little like the season opener of the election campaign. Nobody cares how good your record is in the pre-season. It’s your regular season wins that determine your standings.
Last night’s debate was the first ‘game’ in which fans really tuned in to look at this year’s lineup.
Instead of a football field, basketball court, baseball diamond, or hockey rink, this contest played out on the debate stage.
Even the ‘healthy scratches’ mattered in this game. Obviously, Donald Trump was a no-show. Rather than fight with 8 or 9 other people over table scraps of camera time while being the lightning rod for people polling at less than 1% to deliver a rehearsed cheap shot to boost their name ID, Trump did his own thing.
He and Tucker did an interview. It ran exactly opposite the debate. At the time of this writing, it has been watched by 211 Million viewers. More about that interview here: Trump & Tucker — Counter-Programming To The FoxNew GOP Debate
For context as to how big a deal that number is:
If anyone won last night it’s Trump. And Tucker, if we’re being honest.
The other ‘healthy scratch’ is headed to court today because he believes he met the criteria to be on that stage (and let’s be honest, he would have been a lot more interesting that that guy from Arkansas). We’re talking, of course, about Larry Elder.
How were the showings of those who DID participate?
Let’s go through the list, by reverse order of rankings.
Opinions are my own… obviously.
He showed up, for some reason. Nobody really seems sure why. He took some predictable swipes at Trump, but even that was predictable and dull.
Is there some unwritten rule that Arkansas has to send their old governors to the primaries? Just because Clinton took that path, doesn’t mean it’s one everyone needs to follow.
Came in on crutches after coming back from blowing out his achilles tendon the day before. No pain killer. Occasional ‘small town values’ references had potential but were not leveraged well. His best moment came on the abortion question when he invoke the 10th Amendment.
NeverTrumpers and neocons probably would have enjoyed him. Anyone else, not so much.
He came in with a few canned attack lines. Took some swings at Trump and Vivek in particular. Some may have been impressed by the bluster, but really, his chirping set Haley up perfectly for a canned line kill-shot of her own.
He was angry. Looked for opportunities to trade punches. He lacked real substance and vision beyond taking others down.
A disappointing showing. We were expecting him to bring some energy substance to this debate. But he never quite got off the ground. Many of his answers were adequate or even good. But there was something missing.
Is there still time for him to turn it around? Sure. But this is a huge missed opportunity on his part.
If last night is any indication of how this is going to play out, he should save himself any further embarrassment and withdraw. He came across as angry and combative. He gave the very same defense of Ukraine that leaders would have given to defend Vietnam. He obviously lost the crowd on several occasions — including his condescending answer to Vivek’s question on whether he would pardon Trump which included something about contrition… as if feeling bad about misdeeds is the only function the Framers ever imagined for a pardon. Has he already forgotten how General Flynn was railroaded by a DOJ that manufactured evidence against him?
He seemed desperate in most of the exchanges, interrupting often, making questions about himself as an excuse to reply, even when they were not.
He was personally responsible for derailing the format on several occasions. And he rambled on LONG after the bell rang, showing obvious contempt for the agreed-upon format.
That sort of behavior completely undercuts the one thing he had going for him, that ‘boyscout’ image he had been hanging on to.
Stick a fork in him. He’s done.
To be sure, Nikki Haley is not a candidate I’ve been especially interested in. Nor could I see her endorsing her. But overall, she handled herself pretty well. Her Margaret Thatcher quote was a good zinger and one of the more memorable moments of the day, taking some of the bluster out of both Christie and Vivek.
She was strong in saying Republicans deserved some of the blame for the debt crisis we find ourselves in, naming several opponents who have served in Federal Government, each of them voting to add to the national debt.
She offered a nuanced answer to the life question recognizing that any legislation we do pass will face the very real hurdle of a 60 vote Senate threshold. So we should pick our battles wisely. She called out Pence on his Pollyanna view of leadership.
There were times she came off as angry and scolding. She walked right into Vivek’s ‘future job at Raytheon’ jab. She hasn’t come anywhere close to earning my endorsement. But her team will come out happier with her performance in the debate than anyone else we’ve named so far.
This brings us to the final two candidates at center stage. The young upstart entrepreneur and the Floridian Governor who proved his chops during the pandemic and in some of the post-COVID flashpoints in the culture wars.
Vivek needed to have a big night. In many ways, this was to be his big debut.
And it WAS big! He has momentum, and the other challengers know it. Everyone seemed to be gunning for him. He came ready for it.
He knew the hits were coming. He had no difficulty trading punches with Christie or Haley, flipping Christie’s ‘rookie, Chat GPT’ and ‘Obama’ attack lines on their head with a smile and a quick reference to Christie’s Obama hug that got Barack re-elected.
Vivek had some snappy answers at the ready about policy:
“Yeah, this isn’t that complicated, guys. Unlock American energy, drill, frack, burn coal, embrace nuclear. Put people back to work by no longer paying them more to stay at home. Reform the US fed, stabilize the US dollar and go to war.” (The ‘war’ in this instance? Slashing the administrative state.)
He claimed to be the only one on the stage not ‘bought and paid for’. His ‘pilgrimage to Kiev to thier pope Zelensky’ line contrasting their devotion to Ukraine and relative indifference to suffering parts of America was absolutely withering criticism.
He took a bold stand by saying he was the only one on the stage who thinks the climate change agenda is a hoax. When Baier asked for a show of hands, Vivek underscored it by saying his hands were ‘in his pockets’.
He also told his story and recapped the summary of key ideas his campaign is founded on.
Some people liked his style and his answers, some didn’t. He was clearly comfortable. He didn’t lose his cool and smiled throughout.
If it was a big night for Vivek, it was an even bigger night for DeSantis.
Only a few short months ago, he was the GOP superhero who led Florida into a crazy victory in November and racking up wins in the culture war against (among others) trans activism, race essentialists, Soros prosecutors, and financial institutions using their clout to pressure changes in culture.
But all that momentum faded in the time it took him to finish up the spring session’s work as a Governor. By then, attack ads and the other campaigns had reversed his momentum and set new narratives of their own. His campaign was stalled. Management teams had been swapped out.
He needed an opportunity to shine. To be solid. To show he has leadership qualities.
His team should be happy with the performance. He had some bold moments. For example:
“When these drug pushers are bringing fentanyl across the border, that’s going to be the last thing they do. We’re going to use force and we’re going to leave them stone-cold dead.”
That’s pretty decisive. His goal would likely to have been coming across as a serious contender with real substance.
Did he succeed? It will take some time for the polls to digest the impact of the debates but he is one of the candidates who gets a passing grade. At worst he came out no worse than when he started. At best, he won over some skeptics.
One way or another, our side is going to have to choose wisely. There’s a lot riding on ’24. We really don’t want the Biden Agenda time to become entrenched.
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