The second Republican debate, much like the first, unfolded in a political cosmos where Donald Trump was an enigmatic figure of little consequence.
Candidates gathered at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, were engrossed in a game of jockeying for position, attempting to make memorable statements and points, often striving to craft those elusive “moments” that didn’t quite materialize.
I think Nikki Haley displayed some fighting spirit against her rivals. Ron DeSantis tried to stand above the fray. Doug Bergum made an attempt to stand out by noting someone as the “Governor of the Energy State.” But no one had much to say about Trump.
For me, it’s hard to imagine what impact this debate race will have. The central fact remains that Trump holds a substantial lead. The narrow and limited discussion about Trump was a waste of time.
In a way, everyone on the stage lost because they failed to shake the underlying dynamism. In a way, every viewer was a person who lost by spending two hours and gaining very little. But some losers, notably, achieved a distinctive degree of losing.
The loser: Vivek Ramaswamy
Love him or loathe him, Vivek Ramaswamy was the focal point of the first GOP debate. He was a new face with a speaking style on the stage that set him apart from career politicians, often attracting attention for his anger and disdain. Ramaswamy later became the subject of much discussion among pundits.
But despite some predictions, his performance failed to translate into a surge in the polls. And in tonight’s debate, Ramaswamy’s comments seemed rather mundane.
When his opponents once again made him the punching bag—Tim Scott, Nikki Haley, and Mike Pence all took aim, saying he had done business in China and that his Ukraine policy would aid Russia—he struggled to deliver a memorable response.
The most significant point here is that he didn’t have an effective way to advance his argument about why he should be president. At one point, he conceded that some people might see him as the “know-it-all.” He acknowledged that he doesn’t know everything and would need advice from others.
Throughout the entire race, he didn’t manage to convey a sense of humility that would reassure voters, but that’s not the only issue. If Ramaswamy wants to break out of the mid-single digits in the polls, he’ll need to try something different.
The loser: The Moderator
Running a debate with seven candidates on stage to make it interesting, open, and relevant is no easy task. That said, Dana Perino, Stuart Varney, and Ilia Calderon seemed rather unwilling to engage with the candidates.
In an attempt to maintain strict control over proceedings, the moderators repeatedly shut down interactions between the candidates and rushed to move on to the next question on their predetermined list. At one point, Perino scolded the candidates for mentioning each other too much, suggesting that this would result in fewer questions for them.
Their questions were often overly specific for each candidate, as if the moderators were trying to conduct a “gotcha” interview with seven people at once. Do we really care if Chris Christie’s 13-year-old situation with his immigration status from over a decade ago mattered now?
A good debate reveals how candidates differentiate themselves from each other to inform voters about their preferences. But for the most part, in this election, intermediaries failed to do that. They tread carefully when it came to questioning the heavyweight candidate: Trump.
Moderators rigorously examined the seven trailing candidates, while the election leader was largely spared.
The loser: Fox News
Earlier this Wednesday, Semaphor’s Max Tani revealed that Fox had to significantly reduce the prices of its advertising slots for this debate, as lower interest rates were expected. This demonstrates Fox’s failure to make these debates significant—a failure largely exacerbated by Trump, once again proving that Fox needs him more than he needs Fox.
On January 8, 2021, Fox Chairman Rupert Murdoch wrote in an email that Fox News was “turning left” because it wanted to “make Trump a non-person.” And during 2021 and 2022, Fox’s enthusiasm for Trump appeared to be waning, and its coverage greatly helped establish Ron DeSantis as a credible national rival.
But this year, their plans have faltered as Trump’s candidacy and allegations have made it impossible to ignore him. As demonstrated, whenever Fox tries to damage Trump, network leaders and stars feel besieged by their viewers who love him. Trump has not paid any price to leave these two Fox debates— but Fox has.
The winner: You Know Who
This was another debate where the person leading by more than 40 points was not on the stage and had to endure only mild hits from those present. (Sorry, Chris Christie, calling him “Donald Duck” is cheap and ineffective.) This was also another debate where there was no clear winner—no breakout star who could be elevated as Trump’s primary opponent.
There was a time early this year when the race between Trump and DeSantis was not completely one-sided, and at least it seemed possible that Trump’s lead could be eroded. That time has long passed. And any campaign program that fails to shake that situation effectively aids Trump’s path to nomination.