Most of the Republican presidential primary field met tonight in Wisconsin to “debate.” So who won, and who lost? The frame I ran this by was: Are they in better shape in the presidential campaign after tonight? And the only way they’re in better shape is if they created an opening to chip away at Donald Trump in the months ahead.
Yeah, yeah. I’m as surprised as you are. He came in smarting from months of getting booed on the campaign trail and getting lambasted for standing for democracy on Jan. 6. He faced a MAGA audience that would’ve happily strung him up that day. And he made a case that he, alone on the stage, had ben tested and stood for the Constitution under the worst pressure possible. He looked like a statesman, talking slowly and calmly while a circus happened around him. Then, at a key point, Chris Christie delivered a rousing defense of Pence’s courage.
As if that wasn’t enough, he then faced a Ukraine-skeptical MAGA crowd and had them cheering for our nation’s defense of democracy and acknowledging the danger of Vladimir Putin.
The chattering class, including on Fox News, will give Pence some airtime in the coming week.
Okay, she didn’t crush it, but she had some great moments defending Ukrainian democracy and taking a bat to Vivek Ramaswamy. She landed a nice punch with Margaret Thatcher’s quip that, “In politics, If you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman.” And I don’t recall her getting booed.
Christie suffered some of the most intense, sustained, and hostile audience reaction of the night, and yet he stood his ground and even got some cheers. His defense of Pence didn’t just put him on the right side of the Constitution, it showed that he could be gracious to his opponents in a way that few others could muster. And he did everyone a favor by murdering Ramaswamy.
And yes, being a leader matters. Everyone is so afraid to upset Trump, as if they can somehow win Trump voters. If they are serious about running for president, they have to rally the 50% or so of the party that doesn’t support Trump, as well as motivate non-primary voting Republicans to show up. This is how you do it:
This segment could’ve easily turned into a Putin lovefest. Ramaswamy was aggressively trying to appeal to Trump’s supporters by trashing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, dismissively calling him a “pope.” Yet Pence and Haley came to Ukraine’s defense, got the crowd cheering, and that was that.
The rule of law
This cuts through the conventional wisdom something fierce:
Trump would’ve been the story had he been on stage. Instead, the frame wa,s “He’s indicted. Is he enough of a crook that you’ll still support him?” He thought his lame prerecorded interview with Tucker Carlson would overshadow the debate, but … honestly, I wouldn’t even know if it ever ran. And not because I didn’t go look for it, but because no one anywhere was talking about it. It was a nonentity.
With him on the stage, Christie and Pence could not have mounted a rousing defense of the Constitution. With him on the stage, everyone would’ve gotten 20% of airtime.
The candidates tried to one-up themselves on their allegiance to “life,” yet the crowd was bored and disengaged. A random mention of Hunter Biden got more of a crowd reaction than “life life life.” You’d think they get a hint. Even Fox News wasn’t playing, introducing the segment by saying, “Abortion has been a losing issue for Republicans,” before listing all the elections they’ve lost because of abortion. And yet … the candidates couldn’t let go of the issue.
Abortion is a political loser for Republicans, and they couldn’t even make it work to rally their crowd at a Republican debate.
My god, Ramaswamy was horrible. He came in to cheers, channeling the best Trump: belligerent, brash, rude, insulting, talking over people, etc. He “joked” that he was a skinny guy with a funny last name, completely plagiarizing Barack Obama, but the crowd was too uninformed to notice. Sure, he was channeling some televangelist energy, but that’s never turned off a conservative.
But he quickly overstepped and he got slammed by Christie (using that Obama reference as the cudgel), got schooled on Ukraine, touched the Republican third rail of support for Israel, and ended up looking way out of his depth.
His unreasonably enthusiastic support for Trump is incongruous with him running for president against Trump. And he’s exhibit A in the danger of thinking the conservative bubble is reflective of reality, even among other Republicans:
How awful was Vivek? This awful:
It’s impossible to imagine how DeSantis could fall further, but his refusal to answer the simple question, “Did Mike Pence do the right thing on Jan. 6?” showed once again how weak and fearful a campaign he’s running. Beyond that, did he say anything memorable, anything that really got the crowd going?
This debate was his first national exposure, and he faded into the background. HIs most passionate moment came when discussing abortion, which landed like a thud with the crowd. He didn’t interrupt and fight his way into the conversation like the more aggressive candidates. He was … just there.
There were other candidates there, but I forgot who they were and no one cared.