Republican candidates for the party’s presidential nomination faced off for the first time last Wednesday in a debate hosted by Fox News in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The eight candidates present sparred with each other in a two hour display of political theater that left viewers with more questions than answers. Let’s take a look at what went down last week.
In the absence of newly-returned Twitter user Donald Trump, who skipped the debate to participate in a conspiracy theory-laden interview with Tucker Carlson, it was Vivek Ramaswamy who filled the void that definitely weighs more than 215 pounds. The 38 year-old businessman and political outsider from Ohio, is the youngest candidate in the race and came into the night looking to introduce himself to the many voters who were unfamiliar with him. After his opening statement where he directly quoted Barack Obama by referring to himself as a “skinny kid with a funny last name,” he soon became the star of the show. He made numerous eyebrow-raising statements throughout the night, similar to what Trump did in 2016. His first wild sound bite came when he baselessly declared that the climate change agenda is a hoax, which shockingly elicited boos from a crowd that I thought would have cheered for that statement. From this point onward, Ramaswamy was the main target of attacks from the more established candidates and picked many fights of his own. During these attacks, Ramaswamy fired back with sharp, condescending responses that made him become more annoying as the debate went on. And while it was refreshing to hear a young candidate call out establishment candidates like former Vice President Mike Pence, he undermined himself with his hardline stances and his overall unlikeability that will make it difficult for him to win over undecided voters.
Next to the human lightning rod of the debate stood Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the consensus No. 2 candidate in the race. Coming into the debate, it was expected that DeSantis would face the most heat from other candidates. But DeSantis was largely irrelevant for most of the night as he took a back seat to Ramaswamy’s antics. Though he succeeded at avoiding heavy fire, he was unable to gain any traction on the debate stage and came off as a candidate who should have been on the far edges of the stage rather than dead center. He mainly gave generic answers for most of the night until he declared his intent to invade Mexico to stop drug cartels. As outlandish as his statement was, it came off as a lame attempt to keep pace with Ramaswamy, though I’m still surprised that more people haven’t been talking about this statement.
Many of the other candidates were also in attack mode. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who’s most famous for destroying Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential bid, immediately went after Ramaswamy by calling him an “amateur” in the vein of Obama. Ramaswamy fired back by calling out Christie by accusing him of helping Obama get reelected. The multitude of Obama-related attacks raises this question: do these candidates realize that it’s 2023 and that Obama has been out of office for over six years? It’s amazing that to this day he still lives rent free in Republican’s heads.
Some of the most contentious moments of the night came between Ramaswamy and Pence. The two candidates clashed over their visions of America, with Pence offering an optimistic view in the style of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” advertisement from the 1984 election, while Ramaswamy offered a darker vision of a country with a national identity crisis. Pence, who became more visibly annoyed as the debate went on, went after Ramaswamy for his lack of experience, defended the importance of American leadership abroad and touted his long-running conservative credentials. Ramaswamy wasn’t buying any of it though, as he went on to deride Pence as an out-of-touch establishment shrill and argue that Republicans shouldn’t be supporting Ukraine. The clash between Pence and Ramaswamy shows the identity crisis that the GOP faces: do they want to return to the traditional conservative values espoused by Pence, or do they want to continue down the dark cavern right-wing populism that has become the driving force of the party?
Amidst the clashing rhetoric and personal attacks that defined the night, it was Nikki Haley that delivered the strongest performance. Though I have been skeptical of her campaign from its inception, I was impressed with how she carried herself on stage. She gave strong and reasonable answers the whole night, including arguing for the necessity for finding consensus on the hot-topic issue of abortion and calling out her own party for contributing to the national debt during the Trump administration. She also spoke strongly on foreign policy issues and held her ground against Ramwaswamy during a particularly contentious segment on Ukraine. As a result of her strong performance, some in Trump’s inner circle are beginning to worry about Haley gaining momentum. It’s still early in the race, but Haley’s performance cemented herself as a legitimate candidate for the nomination.
All-in-all, the debate mostly showed what I expected: A deeply divided party searching for its identity while the shadow of Trump looms large. Haley and Ramaswamy likely will see a rise in the polls, but no single candidate on stage did enough to position themselves to have a legitimate shot of taking down Trump in the primary. And I’m sure that the next debate on Sept. 27 will produce the same results.