Well, that debate sucked. Democrats obviously wouldn’t appreciate the politics on display at the second Republican presidential primary debate, but it could have shaken up the race in an interesting way. It did not. This was a cringe-filled amateur hour in which no candidate managed to stand out as a plausible alternative to Donald Trump, the single most important goal for people trailing Trump by 40 or more percentage points. Instead, it was a festival of crosstalk and exchanges of pointless attacks. Here’s just a small taste:
As Kos wrote last night, Trump was one of the debate's big winners by simply not being there.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was there, but it’s not clear what he got out of it. DeSantis did have one good moment, objecting to moderator and Fox News host Dana Perino asking the candidates to write down “which one of you onstage tonight should be voted off the island.” DeSantis responded, “I think that that’s disrespectful to my fellow competitors.” It’s possible that DeSantis also landed a line that his super PAC will use in an ad, as it did his “we’re going to leave them stone cold dead” threat against migrants at the border from the first debate. But while DeSantis had the most total speaking time, he again failed to punch through the chaos, stand out, or look like a leader.
In the first debate, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy stood out by being fast-talking and hugely obnoxious. He was new to most viewers and was notable not just for what he said but also for the sheer loathing he seemed to arouse in his competitors. In the second debate, Ramaswamy appeared to try to tone it down a little, but he’d also lost the element of surprise. Aside from his weirdly tall hair, he fell flat.
Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley had a strong first debate, occasionally seizing the moment to show a combination of expertise and common sense, or at least what passes for those qualities among Republicans. Last night, she never managed to pull off one of those moments. She was sixth out of seven in speaking time, and when she did have the floor, she didn’t make the most of it. She was drawn into an extended exchange of attacks with Sen. Tim Scott that left her shouting to be heard about curtains. It didn’t look very presidential on the part of either Haley or Scott, and it revealed the strain. Both are angling to be next in line for the attention of big donors as DeSantis’ campaign fizzles.
Scott asserted himself more and got more speaking time than in the first debate, but his efforts to depart from his usual sunny persona and be aggressive in a Republican-base-friendly kind of way felt forced, and his scraps with both Haley and Ramaswamy didn’t leave him looking like a winner.
Former Vice President Mike Pence had some big moments in the first debate, which he led in speaking time, but he faded into the background in the second debate. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum was there, as he repeatedly reminded everyone by shouting until he was allowed to answer a question. But if you didn’t suspect that his seven minutes and 35 seconds of speaking time just would have gone to more crosstalk, it would have felt like a total waste of time.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who inexplicably didn’t go after Trump much in the first debate, did so more in the second debate. However, his overall performance was undermined by two of the cringiest lines of the night: Looking straight into the camera and smirking slightly, he threatened to start calling Trump “Donald Duck” for not attending debates. Also, he referred to “the president of the United States sleeping with a member of the teachers’ unions”—because Dr. Jill Biden is a teacher, see. Those were two serious WTF moments from someone generally known as an accomplished debater, and exemplified just how off the rails the entire debate was.
The individual performances, though, were secondary to the dynamics of the primary. Trump has a huge lead in polls. Changing that would require both dragging Trump down somehow and a major breakout performance by one candidate. Neither of those things is happening. You look at the group on that stage, frantically talking over each other in an effort to be heard and then doing nothing useful with the time they get, and understand why Trump remains the dominant figure in the Republican Party and in this primary.
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