The second Republican debate, like the first, took place in a parallel political universe in which Donald Trump was an obscure figure of no serious importance.
The candidates who showed up at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, engaged in a largely vapid exchange of canned lines and talking points, repeatedly attempting to create “moments” that didn’t quite land.
Nikki Haley showed some spirit in picking fights with her rivals, I guess. Ron DeSantis tried to seem above it all. Doug Burgum attempted to get someone to notice him, the “governor of an energy state.” No one had all that much to say about Trump.
It is difficult for me to imagine how this debate will make any impact on the race. The central characteristic of the contest is still that Trump has a massive lead. A debate with extremely limited discussion of Trump was a useless waste of time.
In a way, everyone onstage was a loser for failing to shake up that underlying dynamic. In a way, everyone watching was a loser for having spent those two hours and gotten so little out of it. But some particularly earned that loser status.
Loser: Vivek Ramaswamy
Love him or hate him, Vivek Ramaswamy was the focal point of the first GOP debate. He was a new face whose rhetoric style contrasted with the career politicians onstage — and he often clearly drew their ire and contempt. Ramaswamy was the subject of much pundit conversation afterward.
But despite some predictions, the buzz failed to translate into a bounce in the polls. And at tonight’s debate, Ramaswamy’s schtick sounded stale.
When his rivals made him a punching bag again — Tim Scott, Nikki Haley, and Mike Pence all took their shots at him, saying he did business in China and that his Ukraine policy would help Russia — he failed to respond memorably.
Most importantly, he didn’t really have an effective way to advance his argument about why he should be president. At one point, he acknowledged that some might view him as a “know-it-all”; he admitted he didn’t know everything and would have to seek advice from others.
The affected humility wasn’t convincing given his general behavior throughout the race, but it also wasn’t a case for why he deserves to be in the Oval Office. If Ramaswamy wants to get out of the mid-single digits in polls, he’ll have to try something different.
Loser: The moderators
Moderating a debate with seven candidates onstage so that it can be interesting, revealing, and coherent is no easy feat. Having said that, Dana Perino, Stuart Varney, and Ilia Calderón seemed puzzlingly reluctant to have the candidates actually, well, debate each other.
In an attempt to retain tight control of the proceedings, the moderators regularly cut off exchanges between the candidates, rushing onward to get to the next question in their preset list. At one point, Perino even chided the candidates for mentioning each other too much, saying that would mean they’d get fewer questions.
Those questions were also often hyper-specific to each candidate. It was as though the moderators were trying to conduct “gotcha” interviews with seven people simultaneously. Do we really care whether Chris Christie flip-flopped on his immigration position of 13 years ago?
A good debate draws out how the candidates differ from each other to inform voters about their choice, and for the most part, the moderators failed to do that. They also almost entirely avoided posing questions about the overwhelming poll leader: Trump. Seven candidates trailing badly in the polls were instead scrutinized by the moderators, while the poll leader got off scot-free.
Loser: Fox News
Earlier Wednesday, Semafor’s Max Tani reported that Fox had to reduce its ad time slot prices by hundreds of thousands of dollars for this debate, compared to the first one, because interest was expected to be low. That’s a very tangible demonstration of Fox’s failure to make these debates matter — a failure that mainly stems from Trump making clear, yet again, that Fox needs him more than he needs them.
Back on January 8, 2021, Fox chair Rupert Murdoch wrote in an email that Fox News was “pivoting” because he wanted to “make Trump a non person.” And throughout 2021 and 2022, the network’s enthusiasm toward Trump seemed to have cooled, and its coverage did much to build up Ron DeSantis as a credible national rival to him.
But those plans fell apart this year as Trump’s candidacy and indictments made him impossible to ignore. As has been demonstrated whenever Fox tries to harm Trump, the network’s leaders and stars feel they are hemmed in by their viewers who love him. Trump has paid no price for skipping these two Fox debates — but Fox has.
Winner: You know who
This was another debate where the guy leading by 40 points was not onstage and took only the slightest of blows from those who were onstage. (Sorry, Chris Christie, calling him “Donald Duck” is cheesy and ineffective.) It was also another debate where there was no clear winner — no breakout star who could be elevated to Trump’s main challenger.
There was a time, earlier this year, when the polling between Trump and DeSantis wasn’t totally lopsided, and it seemed at least possible that Trump’s lead could be dislodged. That time has passed. And any campaign event that fails to shake up that status quo is effectively one that aids Trump’s path to the nomination.