Is there a Ronald Reagan in the house?
You’re forgiven if you watched last night’s debate and wondered the same thing. Nearly a year into the seemingly endless 2024 Republican presidential primary horserace (if indeed you can call it a race when the frontrunner, Donald Trump, is out ahead of a semi-bunched up group of also-rans by around 40 points) and the conglomerate of candidates can’t even agree on whether to have everyone sign a “loyalty pledge” and appear on stage together.
Each of the seven hopefuls who actually showed up to the event on Wednesday night signed RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel’s pledge, but not all of them have reinforced that they’ll agree to it when the moment to support arrives. Gone from this forum (unlike the first one last month) was former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, an anti-Trump man without a mission who couldn’t hope to compete for today’s post-MAGA GOP nomination in a million lifetimes. No one missed him (or at least I didn’t) and here’s thinking the remaining qualified contestants didn’t even notice he wasn’t there.
Nearly absent from debate #2 was North Dakota’s Doug Burgum who basically qualified at the last minute for the chance to stand in front of (under?) Ronald Reagan’s Air Force One and field questions from the media moderators (Stuart Varney and Dana Perino (what was the deal with the eye makeup, Dana?) for Fox Business, and Ilia Calderon for Univision). You may recall Burgum made headlines in August by suffering a severe leg injury just days before the initial party debate. Burgum limped across the stage again this time, the question being whether his presence added to the other half-dozen candidates who are much more well-known and recognizable for something other than a gimpy gate and “Bert-like” (from Sesame Street) eyebrows.
The seven presidential wannabes were granted comparatively more time, and each did their level best to justify the millions of dollars the Republican National Committee dumped into holding “official” debates, which admittedly, are unlike any presidential cycle’s similar events in years past. Make no mistake, there’s some political talent remaining in the game, but still, the thought of, “Well, I like him/her, but what’s the chance we’ll see him/her speaking on the last night of the convention next summer?”
Not good. To quote the immortal comedy “Dumb and Dumber” – “Not good like one out of a hundred?” – “I’d say… more like one out of a million.” – “So, you’re saying there’s a chance then. Yeah!”
The odds for a couple of the lower tier candidates of capturing the nomination are greater than one in a million, but how much?
Every time there’s a debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, you can’t help but harken back to the 1980’s and the good ol’ days of Republican politics, to “Morning in America” and the Gipper’s smile putting an optimistic face on America’s future. It’s a large shadow to stand in, and the expectations were mighty high for the participants last night. Were their efforts in vain?
Breakouts or buffoons?
To use a fitting sports analogy to describe the somewhat urgent back-and-forth, baseball’s power hitters often remark that they don’t purposely try to hit home runs, they merely attempt to hit the ball hard and hope the right combination of factors results to make the struck pitch fly over the fence. This, I think, is kind of what the candidates tried to do on Wednesday night – namely, be forceful in their answers, display “presidential” qualities and try to find the right combination of words to make them stand out from their fellow competitors – and lessen the stature gap with the absent Trump.
Think of it kind of like trying to hit a baseball over the fence while stationed on a tee. You don’t get the benefit of physics with a fast pitch reacting with your bat to drive the ball. It’s kind of like the GOP candidates on Wednesday night. They didn’t have Trump there. I don’t think there was a single one who would’ve preferred him to stay away. Everyone was thinking about him anyway.
Like in August, there were far too many interruptions from the candidates, and them vying for questions from the moderators – more like begging – and talking over each other was very annoying. And distracting. It happened a lot. They looked like sparring children.
There will be plenty of blow-by-blow recounting of the Reagan Library forum by the establishment media, including the zingers and quips and one-liners that often make these events individually memorable. Therefore, I will offer more contextual (and I hope, useful) analysis instead.
Governor Ron DeSantis
Perhaps it’s just my own pre-debate prejudice, but current second place candidate, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, seemed a tad nervous and slightly off his game at the outset, the burden of unrealized expectations weighing on him. I don’t know how much DeSantis reads the establishment media’s commentary, but all of the “he needs a breakout night” hoopla directed at the mid-forties Floridian could be hitting home at a particularly bad time.
That being said, DeSantis finally did call out Donald Trump, citing the frontrunner by name and stating that he needed to be at the debate to defend his record on spending and other topics. I’m guessing lots of not-Trump Republicans were saying, “It’s about time, Ron.”
But, in general, it’s almost like DeSantis, who played baseball in college, was trying too hard to hit home runs on Wednesday rather than simply using the fundamentals of his “swing” to drive home hard points. It would be difficult for anyone to match the unrelenting, hard-hitting personality of Donald Trump. Maybe DeSantis hears the chatter of the ruling class crowd and is trying too hard to make himself Trump-like.
They say advice is worth what you pay for it, but my suggestion to DeSantis would be to continue conducting himself as the possessor of a semi-stellar record as the Sunshine State’s governor and let the cards fall where they will. It may not be in 2024, but there’s a lot of “innings” left to play in his career and a few strikeouts – or even an oh-fer-2023 performance -- won’t inflict permanent damage.
Just don’t let the slip-ups become a slump.
The same could easily be said for Nikki Haley, the one candidate on stage who could legitimately claim she benefitted from the first presidential candidates’ forum in Milwaukee. To her credit, Haley never appears nervous, which could be due to an overabundance of confidence – or simply because she knows she doesn’t have a prayer of winning over the Trump voters and is content with being viewed as “steady” and “capable” to compete for either Trump’s vice president or follow up Hillary Clinton’s act as Secretary of State, a position she clearly covets.
But she also came off as mean and vindictive, too, and doesn’t hide her anger very well. It could be said her main highlight/lowlight of the program came when she attacked Ron DeSantis as being anti-energy, remarkably claiming the Floridian is ideologically negligent as though he’s some sort of Green New Deal-er. Absurd. Haley continues to advocate for further U.S. involvement in Ukraine as well. Problem, Nikki? Conservatives want less, not more. That’s bad for her.
As the lone female candidate this year, Haley realizes she needs her “game” face at all times, a delicate balancing act for any contender to manage, especially since she knows she’ll be judged far more for her appearance and mannerisms and facial expressions than the other candidates. This natural inclination to see the contenders as male or female could be used to Nikki’s advantage, but probably not this year.
Being a woman (probably) automatically earns Haley consideration for the veep slot. That’s nothing to sneeze at, whereas no such allowance would be granted to the men in the race, though some of the others will receive demographic considerations through traits they were born with. That’s reality in 2024, like it or not.
I certainly wouldn’t say Vivek Ramaswamy was guilty of trying too hard. The always energetic and enthusiastic thirty-something candidate “plays” these events as though he has nothing to lose, which realistically speaking, is true, though mostly self-funding a presidential candidacy is an expensive proposition.
Ramaswamy complimented all of his fellow Republicans, but that didn’t stop them from once again making him their verbal punching bag, frequently jabbing at the Ohioan, which kind of surprised me. Here the guy is calling for unity and they go after him. Bad optics.
With no legislative record to defend and only a few personal blips (not voting, which Mike Pence pointed out, and some “woke” DEI snafus in his company, etc.) to bring up question marks on his quest, Ramaswamy acts as though he’s riding on the wind, free to articulate ideas that won’t necessarily hurt him, but could definitely plant a seed in folks’ minds that he’s someone to keep watching in years to come.
Just as they did in Milwaukee – the other six candidates seemed to believe that singling out the “new guy” would earn them favor, which is false, except for possibly more mentions in the establishment media, so Ramaswamy still found himself constantly on the defensive Wednesday night.
With the backdrop of the vaunted Reagan library, a political neophyte like Ramaswamy was battling to close his sizable stature gap. I’m not sure he did. The more you see of Vivek the more you’re impressed with his command of knowledge and ideas, but his lack of any kind of political resume is exceptionally hard to overcome, at least in the Republican Party.
Swing for the fences? Just try to hit the ball hard? Look nervous? Heck, I don’t ever recall seeing Mike Pence appear nervous at all – even on the biggest of stages, he’s steely and reassured and unemotional, but certainly never flustered. He’s no Chris Christie, put it that way. And he’s no Donald Trump, either. I certainly didn’t detect anything in Pence’s Wednesday debate performance that indicated the former Trump veep plans to alter his strategy by much, if at all.
Pence likely figures he doesn’t need to “change” at this point in his career, even if it means he’ll never attract the following his former boss has. By the same token, I don’t know if Pence has a “breakout performance” in him for this type of forum, which isn’t helpful to a candidate who trails the frontrunner by around 50 points.
More than any of his fellow GOP competitors (maybe even Trump himself), Pence must feel boxed in by his personal history, one which he probably can’t escape from. In this sense, Mike is the opposite of Vivek Ramaswamy – the younger man who’s still brand new to a majority of Americans. By contrast, everyone knows Mike Pence, and those who like him love him, but those who carry grudges from 2020 will never let them go – therefore, Pence must be “himself” or be called a hypocrite.
Pence didn’t directly answer many of the questions regarding the Trump administration’s record, which included a particularly testy exchange between himself and moderator Dana Perino over Obamacare. It wasn’t his finest moment, for sure.
Pence will almost certainly qualify for the next GOP “official” debate – assuming there is one – and here’s guessing he’ll struggle in many of the same ways then as he did at the Reagan Library last night. Mike would have been a terrific candidate prior to the onset of Trump and MAGA… but those days are gone.
Senator Tim Scott
Somewhat surprisingly, Senator Tim Scott received the first question of the evening – about the UAW strike – and it could be said that the gentlemanly Scott met expectations on Wednesday night, primarily because folks, including myself, didn’t expect much from him to begin with. Scott is more than just a minority candidate running on his fascinating personal history and to possibly appeal to non-white Americans, but, as has been said in the past, there’s only so many times you can hear his unity-type message without mentally tuning out whenever he speaks.
Scott’s problem is, unlike in past cycles, he’s the lone Republican U.S. Senator running for president this year and Republicans tend to prefer candidates with strong executive backgrounds. The late Bob Dole and late John McCain were more recent exceptions, but conservatives tend to favor big personalities (or big hair in the case of Mitt Romney), not the more mild-mannered type like Scott represents. Scott had a difficult time standing out on Wednesday night, just as he did last month and seems to be hard pressed to synopsize his ideas in the one-minute answer debate format.
His highlight of the evening came when he got into a verbal scrap with fellow Palmetto Stater Nikki Haley, which came as a shock to those who thought the two were friends (to be fair, Haley attacked Scott first). Now, I’m not so sure. Incidentally, I took Scott’s side in the argument over spending and the federal budget.
Scott may or may not have a future in presidential politics, but he might be better off running for governor of his home state (South Carolina) or serving in a prominent executive branch position under Trump – or whomever wins the nomination and general election. That way, voters might see him differently… and be more inclined to listen to what he says, too.
Chris Christie has no trouble standing out, for his waistline as well as his hard-edged bluntness and New Jersey brawler mentality, all of which were in evidence Wednesday night. Christie is a witty guy, but he also seems like a power-hitter who actively tries to hit home runs by swinging as hard as he can during every public appearance, which, for him, results in many more strikeouts than solid connections. As I’ve written before, Christie is a one-trick pony, that being a hard defense of the swamp decorum status quo and never-ending antithesis towards Donald Trump himself.
Christie frequently drags his experience as New Jersey governor and as a federal prosecutor into his pitch for expertise on issues and knowing how to govern rather than simply legislate. But his experience was over a decade ago… is there a statute of limitations on governing relevancy? Essentially all Christie’s done since is run for president, and, agitate the new conservative/populist movement in the Republican party.
At one point, Christie looked directly into the camera and goaded Donald Trump – “I know you’re watching”, etc… A great TV moment, but the rotund Garden Stater just enraged more than half of Republican voters, too, especially when he said, “We’re going to call you Donald Duck.”
I’ll candidly admit I still kind of like Chris Christie. He’s an old-guard establishmentarian who still could serve a purpose in busting public employee unions or making a pitch for national unity. Big Chris has absolutely zero chance of gaining (much) ground in this year’s presidential race, but he still (somewhat) serves a purpose when he sticks to haranguing Democrats.
Casual observers likely almost felt pity for Burgum at the Reagan Library Debate, primarily because he always seems like an afterthought for the moderators. On immigration, for example, who would look to the North Dakota governor to talk about how badly open borders hurts the United States?
Burgum does have some interesting thoughts on China and certainly has the temperament to make a good president, but he’s got way too far to go in way too little time to introduce himself to the political world and make headway vis-à-vis candidates who are much more aggressive and/or outwardly different (like Ramaswamy).
His midwestern charm aside, Burgum has almost no chance of a “breakout” in the race. Even if this type of show were held every night, the others would still stand above – and out of reach.
I’m not sure he’d agree, but Burgum’s breakout moment was achieved when he qualified for the first debate in August, which will at least cement his legacy on a Wikipedia page somewhere that he made the field of qualified competitors, and will remain there regardless if Donald Trump ever decides to show up.
Winner – Donald Trump
It doesn’t matter a lick that horserace frontrunner Donald Trump wasn’t standing on stage for the live action photo op that was the second Republican debate last night. As with last month’s event, the participants made some good points – even against Trump – but the viewing audience wasn’t a carefully selected roomful of undecided voters in a focus group. Some watched to find a not-Trump alternative; others were undoubtedly Trump backers curious to see how bad the mudslinging got and still others tuned-in to see if the candidates’ wives’ outfits were fashionable.
Afterwards, the pundits and representatives from the various spin rooms did their best to make their candidate sound as though it was a clear “win” for their political hopeful. But the race is still Donald Trump’s to lose – and I wouldn’t bet that he’s going to commit such a glaring error so as to blow the devotion of so many millions who love him.
So, on to the next debate. Who will be there?
From the Washington Examiner: "The RNC will hold its third primary debate on Nov. 8 in Miami. Each candidate must have a minimum of 70,000 individual donors to their campaign or exploratory committee, including 200 donors in 20 or more states, according to Fox News. Candidates must also reach 4% in two national polls or reach 4% in one national poll and 4% in two statewide polls."
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