Political encounters such as Wednesday’s Republican cage match in Wisconsin are not really debates. They are glittering TV brawls to which candidates bring rehearsed speeches and sound bites. But these, like war plans that don’t survive beyond the first shot of battle, should give way to nimble adaptation once the enemy starts springing surprises.
Far from stopping the rot that has halved his support since January, DeSantis gabbled, looked uncomfortable, and blatantly hung scripted remarks on questions instead of answering them. He was uncompelling and outclassed by several rivals. When candidates were asked if they’d support former President Donald Trump if he was nominated, DeSantis checked what others were doing before raising his hand about halfway. He has forgotten that you can only lead from the front. On this performance, he can be expected to fall farther behind Trump and perhaps be overtaken by others.
Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, the flavor of the month, was fluent, perhaps more than any of the other eight Republican debaters. And he went toe-to-toe capably against former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the biggest bruiser in the race. But his tumbling rhetoric (which sometimes became a torrent) became a vulnerability when combined with his dubious policy positions, such as abandoning Ukraine and Israel. Having seemed fresh at first, he dwindled into being glib and shallow.
This was exposed best by the winner of the night, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who turned on Ramaswamy, denounced him for plans that would make America “weak,” and dismissed him witheringly in one exchange by saying, “You have no foreign policy experience, and it shows.” This sparked loud cheers. Throughout the evening and on most subjects, Haley was forceful, serious, and more self-assertive and aggressive than she has customarily been.
This might, and should, dispel the mist of insipidity that has hung about her throughout the campaign. She needs to sustain her new persona, not just confident but dynamic, for only this will advance her from her lowly position in polls. Sen. Tim Scott, the other South Carolinian in the race, seemed likable but not much more, probably because his compelling American dream life story cannot be unpacked compellingly in clipped sound bites when seven rivals are clamoring for airtime.
Former Vice President Mike Pence plodded out lines from his stump speech, as is his wont. He is the humble bragger of his generation, laying it on so thickly that he might as well be using a shovel. Before one of his boasts, he parenthetically said, “in all humility.” The audio reveals an aptly derisive chuckle of response from one of the participants — it is not clear who.
The other two debaters were largely unobjectionable but also largely pointless. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (lugubrious and dull) and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum (apparently running for small-town mayor) could do everyone a favor by dropping out of the race.
They probably won’t. But if the debate helps sort the sheep from the goats — and I don’t mean greatest of all time — it will have been worthwhile.