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My expectations for the debate were low, but holy crap
Republican also-rans put their unreadiness for prime time on full display.
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The first thing to understand about the Republican primary is that it’s not really a contest. It’s over. It’s been over for months now. It was never even really in doubt. And Donald Trump is the winner.
Trump is so far ahead of everyone else that he has no reason to participate in the primary debates, the second of which took place Wednesday evening at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. And while Trump counterprogrammed with a rally in Michigan — I’ll say more about that later — the candidates who did show up in California for the Fox Business production spent the evening demonstrating why they’re an embarrassing group of also-rans.
Nobody enjoyed this debate (with the possible exception of Trump)
Having watched the first debate and being familiar with the candidates, I certainly didn’t have high hopes for Wednesday evening. But somehow it was even worse than I anticipated. Not only were there no breakout moments or performances that will significantly boost anyone in the polls, but much of it was just flat out unwatchable.
There was Chris Christie taking an extremely cringy shot at President Biden for “sleeping with a member of the teacher’s union” — his wife Jill, a teacher, who he’s been married to for 46 years. There was Mike Pence’s equally uncomfortable rebuttal about how “I’ve been sleeping with a teacher for 38 years.” Vivek Ramaswamy toned down his abrasiveness from the first debate, but he’s still thoroughly unlikeable, and Nikki Haley at one point told him that “honestly every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say.” (Ramaswamy had maybe the funniest slip of the night when he said “thank you for speaking while I’m interrupting.”)
The debate ended on a fittingly brutal note when moderator Dana Perino asked candidates to literally write down who they would like to “vote off the island” — which seemed like a fun idea until the candidates tried to preserve whatever shreds of dignity they might still have by refusing to play along.
To the extent that policy was discussed, it consisted of things like Pence calling for the expedited death penalty for mass shooters (what could go wrong?). You had Doug Burgum, who got on everyone’s nerves by repeatedly trying to butt in, proclaiming that "it's not climate change that we need to be worried about, it's Biden climate policies that are actually the existential threat to America's future.” Ramaswamy insisted that the solution to the national debt is to “put people back to work” — never mind that unemployment is at historic lows and has been throughout much of Biden’s term. And Ron DeSantis responded to a question about Florida’s new abortion restrictions by awkwardly taking a shot at Trump and doubling down on the types of unpopular bans that have been costing Republicans elections.
Perhaps the lowlight of the night, however, was Tim Scott claiming with a straight face that Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society was harder to survive for Black families than slavery.
This stuff was notable in that it illustrates the utterly depraved state of the GOP, but it doesn’t matter in the context of the primary. Everyone on the debate stage was just going through the motions, and they knew it. At this point in the campaign, we’ve seen what they’re working with, and it isn’t nearly enough to dislodge Trump or even force him to engage with them.
Trump, meanwhile, speaks to fake union members
The crop of GOP candidates is so deeply unimpressive that it’s hard to imagine any of them parlaying their campaigns into significant roles in a possible second Trump administration. Trump gave voice to this during his speech Wednesday evening in Michigan.
“They’re all job candidates … they’ll do anything. Secretary of something,” he said. “Does anybody see any VP in the group? I don’t think so.”
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Coming as it did a day after Biden’s visit to the UAW picket line, Trump wanted people to believe he was addressing unionized autoworkers in Michigan (he was actually speaking at a non-union shop at the invitation of management), and fans of his in the audience waved around “union members for Trump” signs. But I suspected it wasn’t on the level, and it took reporters on site about 10 minutes to figure out that not only were some of the people holding those signs not union members, but others holding “auto workers for Trump” signs weren’t autoworkers. It’d be a scandal if any other politician did it, but for Trump it’s just another day on the campaign trail.
In the end, however, there was no need for Trump to try to counterprogram the debate. While his campaign is obviously a nightmare in its own right, Wednesday night demonstrated he has absolutely nothing to fear from the likes of Christie and DeSantis. Both of them tried to take shots at Trump for not debating — Christie at one point looked into the camera and directly addressed Trump with a pro wrestling-style promo — but their attacks didn’t elicit much of a response from the audience in Simi Valley, and it’s hard to imagine they moved many hearts and minds at home either.
Before the debate was even halfway through, CBS News reporter Robert Costa said that GOP sources he was in touch with were expressing “angst” about what they were seeing.
Even Fox News couldn’t really put lipstick on this pig.
“I thought it was a little flat,” Fox News contributor Kellyanne Conway said in the immediate aftermath of a debate produced by the network that employs her — and in this case she wasn’t offering alternative facts.
That’s it for today
We’ll be back with more tomorrow. Thanks as always for your support.