10 min read

Vivek outshined, DeSantis shrank, and other takeaways

My lead takeaways from the first GOP debate — a night unlikely to make much difference in the race.
Vivek outshined, DeSantis shrank, and other takeaways
Ron DeSantis stands silently in the middle as Vivek Ramaswamy tangles with Mike Pence. (NBC News screengrab)

Good morning! It’s Thursday, August 24, 2023. The 2024 elections are 439 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

Quick programming note: In today’s newsletter, I’ll be rounding up my top takeaways from the first Republican debate. If you want to hear more from me about the debate, I’ll be on NPR’s “1A” for the entire hour this morning. You can tune in here from 10-11 a.m. ET to listen online or check your local listings to listen on the radio in your area.

OK, let’s talk about last night.

From my vantage point, Vivek Ramaswamy was the only candidate who stood out from the pack.

The 38-year-old former biotech entrepreneur may be polling in third place, but without Donald Trump present, he was the dominant figure of the GOP’s first 2024 debate. Practically every one of the debate’s hottest moments emerged from divides between him and the rest of the field, placing Ramaswamy at the red-hot center of the night.

Nikki Haley and Mike Pence both had strong moments laying into him, getting hits in on his lack of a governing record (Pence: “We don’t need to bring in a rookie”) and his isolationist views (Haley: “You have no foreign policy experience and it shows”).

But Ramaswamy weathered it all with a grin, never wavering in his confidence — and remaining central to the proceedings through it all. It struck me that entrepreneurs and politicians are both occupations typically thought of as requiring smooth talking and media savvy — and yet it seemed like Ramaswamy’s business background had left him much better trained to speak with clarity on the debate stage than the electoral experience of the professional politicians he was competing against.

He seemed much more camera-ready than the others, always speaking with concise and direct declarative statements. Everything had a three-step solution; at the end, he rattled off a list of snappy one-liners that are like catnip for today’s GOP. (And, yes, it was clearly a prepared speech, even though he repeatedly railed against those throughout the night. After one Ramaswamy diatribe against “memorized, pre-prepared slogans,” Pence responded, “Isn’t that one of yours?”  Later, Chris Christie said that he’d “had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT.”)

Ramaswamy was never at a loss for words, returning fire as he accused Christie of running to be “president of MSNBC” and the rest of the field of being “super PAC puppets” who were “bought and paid for.”

That volubility made for a stark contrast to the largely quiet Ron DeSantis, who refrained from joining the attacks against Ramaswamy and who was barely attacked himself throughout the night. Despite a super PAC memo advising him to “hammer” Ramaswamy — and his advisers promising that all the candidates would try to gang up on DeSantis, the current runner-up — DeSantis largely shrank into himself and went long stretches without saying a word.

Throughout the night, a clear theme emerged: Ramaswamy wanted the ball, DeSantis didn’t.

Not only was he not attacked — a revealing sign of who the other candidates view as a threat — but DeSantis barely interjected, mostly staying quiet unless called upon. Pence and Ramaswamy, by contrast, repeatedly jumped in and got more speaking time as a result.

Ron DeSantis came in fourth in speaking time last night. (Graphic by the New York Times)

The only time DeSantis broke that trend and seized the microphone without being called on, he did so to avoid answering a question, shutting down the moderators’ plans for candidates to raise their hands if they believed climate change is caused by humans. “We’re not schoolchildren,” the Florida governor said.

Every time the candidates were asked for a show of hands, DeSantis wavered, while Ramaswamy shot his hand in the air. For me, the most indelible image from the night came when the candidates were asked if they would still support Trump as the Republican nominee if he were convicted in a court of law.

Ramaswamy raised his hand immediately. Then, Haley, Tim Scott, and Doug Burgum followed. DeSantis noticeably glanced to the rest of the stage and begrudgingly raised his hand, joined by Pence and (it looked like) Christie, although Christie later said he was raising his fist.

Here’s that revealing moment in GIF form:

Similarly, when the candidates were asked if they would oppose additional Ukraine funding, DeSantis waved his hand indecisively while Ramaswamy — alone — raised his in the air. (And then there was the climate question where DeSantis appeared so unwilling to register a response that he shut down the query entirely.)

Ramaswamy’s confidence — even on issues where he stood apart on the stage — likely resonated with Republican voters who frequently tell pollsters they are looking for a fighter. (Up until this point, that had been DeSantis’ entire brand.)

His ideology likely struck a chord as well: he was the only candidate to come out against Ukraine aid, but that’s the stance backed by more than 70% of Republican voters. He was Trump’s most forceful defender on stage, calling him “the best president of the 21st century,” a message GOP voters largely agree with. Many of the attacks against him focused on inexperience, but there’s hardly proof that the Republican electorate has any issues with elevating an outsider to high office.

“For a long time, we have professional politicians in the Republican Party who have been running from something,” Ramaswamy said. “Now is our moment to start running to something.”

Again and again, it seemed like Ramaswamy — more than the longtime Republican officials on stage — was attuned to the opinions of the Republican base. It also seemed like he was genuinely enjoying himself (“We’re just gonna have some fun tonight,” he said), unlike the stiffer DeSantis, who barely cracked a smile and who appeared afraid to open his mouth.

In the end, though, it’s not clear that Ramaswamy — or anyone — placed themselves any closer to the presidency. Trump went unmentioned for long parts of the night, and at times, it seemed like the debate was taking place in an alternate universe where he wasn’t leading everyone on stage by 40 points.

Most of the attacks lobbed against Ramaswamy could just have easily been aimed against Trump, who shares a similar worldview and lack of pre-presidency experience, but each time the Republican candidates had an opportunity to apply such critiques to the frontrunner, they held back.

Only the low-polling trio of Pence, Christie, and Asa Hutchinson showed a willingness to attack the former president. Pence, in particular, seemed happy to skewer his former running mate and promote his stand on January 6th: “The president asked me...to put him over the Constitution,” Pence said. “And I chose the Constitution and I always will.” He was clearly pleased when the conversation revolved around his certification of the 2020 vote: “Answer the question,” he prodded his rivals when it seemed like they were refusing to answer whether he acted correctly.  

Most of the field — sans Ramaswamy — ended up agreeing that Pence did the right thing. (“Mike did his duty, I’ve got no beef with him,” DeSantis said.) But candidates like DeSantis, Haley, and Scott never took that argument to its logical conclusion: that must mean that Trump wanted Pence to do the wrong thing. They were all willing to praise Pence for January 6th, but not to criticize Trump for it.

Of course, it isn’t as though attacking Trump would likely have helped them with Republican voters. Polls consistently show that Pence, Christie, and Hutchinson have the lowest favorability ratings of anyone in the field; in a recent Des Moines Register poll, 54% of Iowa Republicans said that a candidate criticizing Trump would make them less likely to vote for them.

But, still, to get to the White House, everyone on stage last night will have to get around Trump first, and none of them seemed any closer to articulating a message (even a more positive one) that will allow them to do that. They mostly seemed to prefer pretending their common obstacle did not exist. That goes for DeSantis, the GOP establishment’s first great hope against Trump, as well as donor backup choice Scott, for whom the debate came and went without anything approaching the breakout moment he sorely needed.

Except for some brief criticisms of Trump’s spending record (from Haley) and his handling of Covid (from DeSantis), the candidates barely laid a hand on Trump, which means nothing that happened last night is likely to do anything to dent his enormous polling lead. At most, the deck chairs might be shuffled in the race for second or third place, a contest that only matters if you don’t mind a “vice” in front of your title as president, which, admittedly some of these candidates seemed to be competing for.

Even a surge for Ramaswamy — if one materializes — should be seen as a boon for Trump, not a threat. In a theoretical scenario where the race ends up as just Trump vs. Ramaswamy, it’s hard to imagine Republican voters picking the acolyte over the real thing. Until then, any polling bump Ramaswamy receives should be treated more as a sign of how much the GOP loves the former president, seeing as the Indian-American multimillionaire often seemed to act as a Trump stand-in.

After a night in which no one effectively explained why they, not Trump, should be the nominee — or, mostly, even tried to, despite their large polling deficit against him — the Trump campaign was quick to declare victory. “I knew President Trump wasn’t going to be there tonight. I didn’t know Ron DeSantis was going to skip the debate as well,” said Trump senior adviser Jason Miller, reveling in their main competitor’s irrelevance.

Trump isn’t the only primary frontrunner who appeared pleased with how last night’s debate went: Joe Biden seemed plenty happy too.

DeSantis may have shut down a show-of-hands on climate change that would have surely ended up in a Democratic TV ad, but there were still plenty of lines last night that quickly made fodder for a Biden campaign commercial.

One thing that struck me was the amount of time spent on issues important to young voters, including climate change, guns, and abortion. One of the debate co-sponsors was a GOP youth voter group, Young America’s Foundation (YAF); the RNC also partnered with a youth-led conservative environmental group, the American Conservation Coalition, on their official debate after-party.

Those steps show how much the GOP, at least institutionally, is trying to extend an olive branch to young voters, who have helped throw recent elections to the Democrats. But the candidates didn’t seem in a rush to help with that effort, repeatedly answering those questions with stances unpopular among young voters — and the broader electorate, as Biden will likely exploit in the coming days.

Most of the GOP field expressed support for restricting abortion access, although they were divided on whether state or national governments should play the lead role there. (DeSantis, again, refused to take a side, saying only that he would “stand on the side of life.”) A Pew poll earlier this year found that 62% of Americans believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, an opinion that they have expressed at the ballot box in elections like the recent Ohio referendum.

Then, there was Ramaswamy’s declaration — in response to a YAF questioner, who DeSantis later ensured did not receive many answers — that “the climate change agenda is a hoax.” Even in a debate hall of Republicans, boos broke out; Biden later tweeted, “Climate change is real, by the way.” 75% of Americans support a U.S. role in global efforts to curb climate change, according to a different Pew survey, making that another broadly unpopular opinion.

On both issues, notably, Haley advocated something of a middle ground, calling for bipartisan “consensus” on abortion. But she was quickly outnumbered: “Consensus is the opposite of leadership,” Pence declared, joining most of the Republican candidates in calling for state or national attempts to curb access to abortion.

Eight candidates debated last night, but two not on the stage — Donald Trump and Joe Biden, the same two candidates who have been poised for a rematch all year — were the ones who had the best night.

Speaking of the former president...

Happening today: Trump to turn himself in in Georgia

Trump will soon take control of the media spotlight once again, shifting attention away from last night’s debate and towards his surrender to authorities in Georgia, which is set to take place this afternoon.

The ex-president faces 13 felony counts in Georgia stemming from his efforts to overturn the state’s 2020 election.

Ahead of his surrender, Trump shook up his legal team this morning, replacing the lawyer who had been leading his defense in Georgia. 18 co-defendants were charged alongside Trump, many of whom have already turned themselves in and taken mugshots (see Rudy Giuliani’s below).

(Photo from the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office)

Unlike after his three previous indictments, a mugshot is expected to be taken for Trump as well — an image that will become instantly historic, and will likely be used in Trump campaign merchandise and advertising.

More news to know.

Mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin is presumed dead in a plane crash outside Moscow / AP

6-week abortion ban takes effect with ruling from SC’s all-male Supreme Court / Post and Courier

Watchdog uncovers ‘inappropriate access’ to Biden’s personal data / E&E

The day ahead.

White House: President Biden and VP Harris have nothing on their public schedules.

Congress: Both chambers of Congress are on recess.

Supreme Court: The justices are out until October.

Thanks for reading.

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