GOP Debate Wrap: First Thoughts

By Al Perrotta Published on August 24, 2023

Not since the days of Laverne & Shirley have so many eyes been turned to Milwaukee. The occasion? The first GOP debate of the 2024 election season. Of course, not nearly as many eyes were on the debate as Fox News had hoped because front-runner Donald J. Trump chose instead to be grilled by Tucker Carlson.

A good break for the other candidates. Voters need to get a good look at the other possibilities without Trump sucking up all the oxygen.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum participated despite injuring his Achilles tendon Tuesday night. He didn’t have crutches. Then again, all candidates come on stage with crutches. Meaning, pre-written, pre-tested attack lines and applause lines. And the night was filled with them.

Did Ron DeSantis Regain His Momentum?

A few short months ago, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was considered the only serious challenger to Trump. Yet he has been flailing and losing support to others in the field. And while DeSantis had a couple strong moments and came across as the competent, effective guy he is, he wasn’t much of a factor in the debate. He faded into the background. A sure sign that he’s in trouble? Although he owned in the #1 spot on stage, the debate did not revolve around him. None of the other candidates seriously went after him. The fact his opponents did not feel the need to take him down is not a good sign for him. You’ve seen Clint Eastwood westerns. Clint shoots first at the gunslinger he thinks is most dangerous.

Moreover, DeSantis made little effort to insert himself into the fray. Yes, we want a president, not a WWF fighter. And DeSantis is just not wired for free-for-alls. But a commander-in-chief needs to have command of more than the issues. They need to have command of a room.

DeSantis had another moment that is going to haunt him. The question was simple. A show of hands of candidates who would support Trump as the GOP nominee if convicted of any of the charges against him. Vivek Ramaswamy’s hand shot up. Most others gradually went up. But DeSantis looked right, looked left … then put his hand up. Seeing how the others would go? Feeling what the reaction was going to be? No matter whether DeSantis was legitimately timid or not, the impression is what counts. The Trump Team (and other commentators) pounced.

So Who Stirred the Drink?

Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who’s been rising in the polls, surpassing DeSantis in several, was the “lightning rod.” He got lit up from all directions. And gave as good as he got. Gov. Chris Christie torched him for sounding like a ChatGP and then compared him to Barack Obama.

The last person in one of these debates, Bret, who stood in the middle of stage and said, “What is a skinny guy with an odd last name doing up here?” was Barack Obama, and I’m afraid we’re dealing with the same type of amateur standing on this stage tonight.

Vivek’s riposte was swift, “Come give me a hug and help me get elected like you did with Obama.”

Mike Pence launched several broadsides and the two got into several heated exchanges. Did you ever think you’d use the phrase “heated exchange” in a sentence with “Mike Pence”? Pence also savaged the political novice for his inexperience.

Nikki Haley launched a full-throated assault on Vivek’s foreign policy positions, a high-pitched tirade that turned into a free-for-all. Laura Ingram tweeted, “I don’t understand why both Pence and Haley think it’s a good idea to holler at Vivek. It makes them look desperate and him look strong.”

In fact, Pence spent much of the night with the Bible in one hand, and a shiv in the other. His tone and demeanor came across as arrogant, self-righteous, even snarky, as it has also been on the campaign trail. “I’ll say it slower this time,” he told Vivek after Ramaswamy remarked that he didn’t even know what one of Pence’s canned lines meant.

A Dark Time in America?

However, one bit of sparring between Pence and Vivek really deserves longer discussion in this campaign. Pence … and for that matter, the other candidates, had little use for Vivek’s argument that “We’re in the middle of a national identity crisis”; that we’ve lost connection with the values that unite us as Americans. That foundations like family and faith have been wrecked and people are “hungry for purpose and meaning.” Pence dismissed this, responding that we just “need a government worthy of its people.” Vivek struck back. “It is not morning in America … we’re in dark times … we’re in a cold cultural civil war.”

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The debate had begun with co-moderator Martha McCallum playing a clip of Oliver Anthony’s “Rich Men North of Richmond.” Did anyone but Vivek understand, truly understand, why the song is resonating? North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum came close when he spoke of the small town he grew up in. “Small town values are our road back.”

(Speaking of Burgum, he acquitted himself rather well in his first real moment in the national spotlight, despite his ruptured his Achilles tendon. Not “presidential” well, but “cabinet secretary” well. And kudos for gutting it out.)

These were big ideas Vivek was talking about, amid the back-and-forth: Mental health crisis. Fatherlessness. Meaning. Purpose. Who are we as a country. These are crucial matters.

And Fox News is asking about Chris Christie about UFOs. “I get the UFO question? C’mon, man!” Christie rightfully groused.

Fox News Harping Liberal Issues and Hurting Trump

Yes, Fox News asked Christie about UFOS. And asked about climate change straight off, as if they were MSNBC and CNN. And asked if Mike Pence did the right thing on January 6 in refusing to return the disputed swing state ballots back to those states. Is that really the question? Wouldn’t the real question be “Do you think the 2020 election was a free and fair one, given what we now know about the FBI and CIA’s involvement in suppressing the Hunter Biden story?” Or perhaps “Why do you think the treatment of even peaceful J6 protestors is acceptable?”

DeSantis was spot on for chiding Fox News for playing into the Democrats’ hands. The election is not about January 6, DeSantis said. “It’s about January 20, 2025.”

So Who Won? Who Lost?

It’d be cliche to say Trump won. After all, as of 12:30 a.m. nearly 100 million people have watched his interview with Tucker Carlson that posted five minutes before the start of the GOP debate. And no one on stage looked like they, at this point, pose a threat to him.

But since Trump wasn’t there, we don’t want to declare him the debate winner.

That title goes Vivek Ramaswamy. For two hours he got attacked by some real pros. Pence, Christie and Nikki Haley are no slouches. And yet, despite this being his first debate, despite the heavyweight blows, they didn’t buckle him. The fact he took so much heat signals clearly that the others in the race see him as a threat.

Vivek had the quick comebacks and winning smile, but he also talked about fundamental issues, and didn’t fear bucking the party line on Ukraine. Yes, he has vulnerabilities and big questions. Yes, saying he’s the only candidate who’s “not owned” is cheap. Yes, Christie’s Obama comparison does give one pause about handing the keys over to some slick talker we know little about. However, Vivek met the moment and proved he’ll be a force to contend with.

It would be unfair to call DeSantis the night’s “loser,” because staying out of the cross-fire may pay off in the long run. Letting others beat up on Vivek saved him the bother. And he gave solid answers. Yet the Florida governor could have gone a long way toward reversing his downward trend last night, and he did not. The question about Trump left him looking timid. He faded into the background, rather than taking command of the stage. If DeSantis couldn’t stand out in this crowd, what happens when he has to share a stage with Trump?

But he did have a moment that hints at what could be. The moderators wanted a show of hands on who believes humans have a role in causing “climate change.” DeSantis would have none of it, blurting out “We’re not school children, let’s have the debate!”

On a night filled with many moments of candidates bickering and whining and talking over each other like school children hopped up on sugar, perhaps this will become a motto for the rest of the primary. “We’re not school children…and neither are the voters. Let’s have the debate.”


Al Perrotta is the Managing Editor of The Stream, chief barista for The Brew and co-author, with John Zmirak, of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Immigration. You can follow him at @StreamingAl at GETTR, Gab, Parler, and now at TRUTH Social.

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