Round 2: Fight!

Last night we “enjoyed” the second debate of the 2024 GOP presidential primary cycle. I wrote about the first debate from the perspective of an undecided primary voter, giving my perspective on the candidates and their performances. I took a more holistic approach to the second. Now that we’ve seen what the candidates are about, it’s time to get serious about narrowing the field.

First, a note about the parameters of the debate. I quite enjoy the debate commission having adopted the concept of blinds in tournament poker for winnowing out the field by increasing the qualification requirements for each round. While Asa Hutchinson may be a fine candidate in a vacuum, he hasn’t moved the needle in polls and didn’t seem to add much to the stage last time. Narrowing the field helps the more competitive candidates and also gives the audience more of a chance to hear from and differentiate those candidates.

Unfortunately, some of that time was lost last night to repeated crosstalk and squabbling between the candidates. I find it strange that the networks go to the trouble of selecting a panel of several professional journalist moderators who then completely fail to do any moderating. The debates would be both more informative and more enjoyable to watch if each candidate’s microphone were only turned on when that candidate was asked a question, and then disabled again when the candidate’s time had expired.

Getting back to what substance there was in the debate, few of the candidates staked out substantial policy differences amongst each other. The main points of disagreement were regarding whether abortion should be regulated at the federal level or in the states, whether and how we should continue to support Ukraine, and whether we should be merely very strict on illegal immigration or extremely mega-strict on illegal immigration.

The governors were the stars of the show last night, managing to relate many of their questions to their performance in executive office. Nikki Haley seemed to let other candidates knock her off her game a little more than in the first debate, but still delivered a reasonable performance. She would be a competent leader if elected. Chris Christie leaned heavily into going after Donald Trump, which has been the focus of his campaign, but also delivered solid answers on improving educational outcomes, supporting Ukraine, and winning elections as a pro-life candidate. Ron DeSantis also repeatedly returned to his successful governorship of Florida and his resounding reelection victory, and seemed to be more forceful and engaged than in the first debate.

These three seem to be the most viable potential alternates to Trump at this stage. They’re not the only ones I’d consider electable, but the primary voters might be best served at this point by narrowing the stage to those three for the next debate.

Doug Burgum, of course, is also a Republican governor. He made a few very specific and no doubt accurate points on topics like health care software, which aren’t likely to move the needle much. They do shore up his qualifications for serving in a future Cabinet, perhaps as Secretary of Commerce or HHS, which as I mentioned last time is probably the best role for him.

Mike Pence continued to try to establish a lane that satisfies no one, defending his accomplishments in the Trump administration (which anti-Trump voters won’t like) while staking out a position against Trump’s attempt to overturn the last election and his current candidacy (which pro-Trump voters won’t like). He also seems to have lost a step, occasionally sounding lost or off-track. If anything, he strikes me as a Bob Dole-style “it’s my turn” candidate, which has not lately been a path to victory (see, e.g. “Clinton, Hillary”). He satisfies neither Trump supporters nor those who are ready to move on, and it’s increasingly unclear just who he expects to vote for him.

Tim Scott improved his performance over the first debate with a solid opening answer, but again failed to do anything to really differentiate himself from the field. He attempted to start a fight with Nikki Haley over a gas tax in South Carolina, but it didn’t really land, and then he got lost in some kind of argument about curtains. He’ll still be a very credible option for vice president for one of the other candidates, but it’s harder to get excited about any prospect he may have for victory himself.

And of course Vivek Ramaswamy is still on stage, with all the smoothness and charm of someone who doesn’t want you to miss out on the fantastic investment opportunity his time shares represent. In some ways he can be the most charismatic person on stage, until he veers off onto some insane tangent to prove he’s Trumpier than Trump himself. His performances have been very compelling interviews for his next job, as a talking head somewhere that’s sponsored solely by sellers of physical gold and emergency food rations.

If there was one surprising moment in the debate, it’s that all the candidates were much more willing to target Trump on issues like his presiding over a massive increase in the debt and his failure to build a substantial amount of the wall he promised. This has always been central to Christie’s campaign, but last night we saw hits from DeSantis (finally), Haley, and others.

If there were a second, it would be the moderators absurdly asking the candidates to write down which of the other candidates they would remove from the stage, like some kind of strange reality show. DeSantis shut that nonsense down, for which he deserves substantial credit, and partial credit to the other candidates for immediately agreeing with him.

And, if there were a third, it was the cigarette ad at the hour mark, a first in over fifty years for television. Okay, it wasn’t specifically a cigarette ad, but it was an ad to oppose a menthol cigarette ban that was sponsored by a fake “border security” group whose only policy concerns are stopping Chinese vapes from entering the US and keeping flavored cigarettes legal, so the source of the funding is pretty obvious. “Smoking is good, actually” is certainly one of the more interesting niches of the new post-2016 conservatism.

If I were setting up the next debate, I would ensure that I selected moderators who are willing to moderate, and I’d invite only Christie, DeSantis, and Haley. Trump, too, of course, if he would ever stop hiding in the basement. It’s time for the rest to acknowledge this is not their year and start working to get a viable candidate elected.

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