What did we learn from the first Republican debate on August 24th? I see politics through my lens as a former communications director for a Member of Congress and on Senate campaigns and as a member of the media for over 40 years. Finally, I am a mainstream Republican who liked most of Trump’s policies in office but disapproved of his conduct in office – especially how he acted after losing the election.
Without Trump, the “800-pound elephant not in the room,” the contest seemed more like the undercard than the main attraction. Staying away was the correct political strategy for Trump. Ahead by 40 points in every poll, he had nothing to gain and everything to lose. If he participated, he would have been the focus of the debate.
He did Republican primary voters a favor. It allowed them to hear the other candidates without Trump sucking the air out of the room.
Trump was the big winner of the debate. Nobody did anything that knocked him down a peg or presented themselves as a serious competitor to his claim to the Republican nomination.
From my point of view, there were two debates within the contest.
The first was the debate that will take place in the general election against the Democrat’s presumptive nominee, Joe Biden. The second was the primary battle, which — depending on your point of view — is either a contest to become number two or to impress Trump enough to be his eventual Vice Presidential choice.
Nobody did a better job auditioning for Trump than Vivek Ramaswamy. The 38-year-old entrepreneur and political neophyte was comfortable going toe-to-toe with some of the most experienced politicians in the Republican Party. He stood out by constantly injecting himself into every topic. He was involved in every highlight, whether he dished it out or got eviscerated by Mike Pence, Chris Christie, or Nikki Haley.
Some hardcore MAGA fans may appreciate Ramasway, but I think his performance will cost him more than he gains. He displayed all of Trump’s characteristics without any of the charm. He was boorish, insulted everybody else, and went overboard in his praise for the former president.
Ramaswamy repeatedly violated Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment, “Thou shall not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” It was unnecessary to accuse everyone else of being “bought and paid for.” Whenever he said he wasn’t a politician and flashed his overly polished smile, he appeared less presidential and more of a used car salesman. When he lashed at rivals for using canned lines and followed it with a well-rehearsed insult, he came off more like a long-time pol than an amateur. However, many of his views, especially on foreign policy, demonstrated his lack of policy experience.
I’m aware that many Republicans disagree with funding Ukraine’s war with Russia. It’s a debate for another day. But Nikki Haley made many arguments that I believe are on point.
Haley had a good night and should rise a bit in the polls, primarily with more conventional Republicans, such as myself. No doubt she rehearsed the line quoting Margaret Thatcher about needing a woman if you want to get something done, but her delivery was effective.
Haley geared her responses toward the general election. Her positions on foreign policy, spending, and calling Trump “the most disliked politician in America” won’t endear her with the MAGA base. Her handling of the abortion issue may resonate with women. She took a realistic, if unpopular, view within the GOP by focusing on the areas of agreement that mainstream Democrats would likely agree to pass. She is trying to improve her lot in the rankings while maneuvering for the general. It’s unlikely these stands will put her on Trump’s list for VP – if he is the nominee.
The only other participant to disapprove of federalizing abortion laws was North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum. He caught my attention with his non-hypocritical answer. Republicans spent 50 years fighting Roe based on the 10th Amendment — the position that abortion was an issue that belonged to the states. He’s right. After 50 years of saying it is a state matter, to make it a federal matter again is hypocritical.
Burgum impressed me with his first answer about economics when he talked about energy independence. He was the only candidate to mention the Chinese threat to the United States. Burgum and former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson lacked the other six participants’ polish or cut-through ability.
The morning of the debate, Burgum tore his Achilles tendon playing basketball. Was his poor delivery because he was nervous or not ready for primetime? Could pain from his accident account for a lackluster? Perhaps Burgum was on pain medicines and not in his usual condition? I gave the guy two bucks, hoping to see him one more time under less extenuating circumstances.
The person who surprised me the most, Ramaswamy aside, was former Vice President Mike Pence. If FNC pre-recorded the debate and cut a promo using highlights, they could have said, “Mike Pence like you’ve never seen him before,” and never would a more accurate statement have been uttered.
It wasn’t surprising to see Pence declare his religious beliefs. But inserting himself into every moment of a debate is mind-boggling. More bizarre was Pence playing attack dog. The difficulty for Pence is trying to take credit for parts of the “Trump-Pence administration” while distancing himself from its ending. It’s a tightrope act that more skilled politicians couldn’t pull off. I don’t know what Pence is trying to accomplish. I’m not being sarcastic when I say he’s probably on a mission from God.
Chris Christie did the best job of prosecuting the case against Trump, but that isn’t going to gain any traction in the Republican Party that he still dominates. It’s hard to imagine Christie going forward unless Democrats fund him. Christie isn’t fighting to win the primary or the general so much as he is trying to take down Trump.
Governor Ron DeSantis needed a big night to stem a straight downward trajectory since the start of the year. He didn’t have one. It wasn’t a bad night. He had no gaffes, but he didn’t say anything viewers will remember. Despite a few conservative commentators applauding him, he disappeared for long stretches of the debate. The good news for DeSantis is he wasn’t attacked all night, as conventional wisdom predicted.
DeSantis really needs to learn to smile. He looks angry and unfriendly.
He made the case for his governorship but couldn’t translate it into a national plan. Instead, he bobbed and weaved all night, never answering questions. He didn’t answer if he would sign a six-week abortion law similar to the one he signed in Florida. The lowlight of the night was when moderators asked for a show of hand if they would support Trump if he is the eventual nominee. Only after looking at others did he raise his hand. He wouldn’t answer questions about Pence’s role on January 6th. He only begrudgingly declared, “I have no beef with Mike.” He should have said Pence did the right thing and then launched into the election about the future and not the best.
Tim Scott was also disappointing. Scott is a nice guy. It works at a rally or in a town square forum. It’s not a positive attribute in a free-swinging debate format. Scott may be maneuvering for a position in the next Republican administration.
Trump came out of the first debate unscathed, making him the winner. Ramaswamy was the most notable of the eight on the stage. The lights weren’t too bright for the political neophyte. He may have impressed some primary voters, but he surely turned off at least as many. The person he impressed the most (aside from himself) is probably Donald Trump.
If DeSantis needed a big night, he didn’t get it and didn’t set up a general election theme. The person who did the best job of that was Nikki Haley. Chris Christie is the best at prosecuting Trump to Republican primary voters. I liked Doug Burgum’s content geared at the general election. Although I doubt he can get there, I’d like to see him in one more debate. I have no idea what Mike Pence is thinking. However, he should drop out along with Tim Scott and Asa Hutchinson before the next Republican debate, September 27, at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California.
Andy Bloom is president of Andy Bloom Communications. He specializes in media training and political communications. He has programmed legendary stations including WIP, WPHT and WYSP/Philadelphia, KLSX, Los Angeles and WCCO Minneapolis. He was Vice President of Programming for Emmis International, Greater Media Inc. and Coleman Research. Andy also served as communications director for Rep. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio). He can be reached by email at email@example.com or you can follow him on Twitter @AndyBloomCom.