The First Republican Presidential Debate

[ Posted Wednesday, August 23rd, 2023 – 22:01 UTC ]

[Note: As usual, I am going to set down my reactions to the first Republican presidential debate of the 2024 cycle here, before I read anyone else's analysis. Maybe we'll all be in agreement, maybe not. And as always, these quotes were hastily jotted down and might not be word-for-word accurate, so my apologies in advance for any inadvertent errors.]


Overall, tonight's first Republican debate was pretty entertaining, at least to me. These days, the entertainment value of a debate is a lot more important than scoring any kind of ideological points, so I'm using the same scale everyone else will.

There wasn't a whole lot of actual debate about differences in ideology... some, but not a lot. It was instead more of a series of one-on-one shouting matches between two of the candidates. More on those in a moment.

The truly astonishing thing tonight was that Ron DeSantis didn't took almost zero incoming flak. He only really got into it with another candidate once, towards the end, when Nikki Haley took a shot at him almost as an afterthought immediately following a dustup Haley had with Vivek Ramaswamy.

Which brings up the second most astonishing thing tonight. Instead of Ron DeSantis being everyone's punching bag, it was instead Ramaswamy who played this role. I noted ten instances of two candidates getting into it directly (plus a few where the candidates got into things with the crowd, as boos rained down on the stage). Out of those ten, Ramaswamy was involved in eight of them.

Perhaps this is a function of his brash character, or the fact that (not unlike Donald Trump) Ramaswamy is perfectly comfortable saying all kinds of outrageous things about anything under the sun, or perhaps it is the fact that Ramaswamy is now polling in third place and rising -- while second-place DeSantis is falling. Maybe all the other candidates thought it'd be smarter to take on the up-and-coming candidate rather than the one who looked like he was collapsing.

What wasn't particularly surprising was that Donald Trump only came up for one segment of around ten minutes, and that other than a very occasional jab from either Chris Christie or Asa Hutchinson, everyone was perfectly fine with just ignoring the frontrunner in the race. It leant a bizarre "He Who Shall Not Be Named" flavor to the whole thing, but then again it was on Fox News, I suppose.

One final astonishing thing from tonight was that there was actually a whole lot of support for Mike Pence's actions on January 6th. Nobody jumped in and started ranting about stolen elections, nobody challenged Pence for being insufficiently loyal to Trump. Perhaps Pence getting out in front of the issue (he brings it up before interviewers do, these days) has actually defanged it all for him? That would be a rather remarkable achievement.


I'm going to detour for a quick moment here by giving some very brief reactions to all eight of the candidates who were on the stage, in the order they gave their closing statements (lowest poll numbers to highest, in other words).

Doug Burgum would have made a perfectly fine Republican presidential candidate, say... a few decades ago. Rugged Reaganesque good looks, hails from a Prairie state, a by-his-bootstraps life story... really a fine example of what used to be a great politician on the national stage. However, since Republican voters aren't interested in that sort of thing these days, he hasn't got a prayer. I will credit him for stamina, as I actually forgot throughout the night that he must have been standing there in some serious pain, since he tore his Achilles tendon this morning. But he stood like an oak for two solid hours, which must have been agonizingly painful.

Asa Hutchinson is just boring. I'm sorry. He really is. Even when he's saying things I like to hear (like when he rips into Trump), his voice and cadence and accent all just kind of put me to sleep. Like Burgum, I seriously doubt he'll be back for the next debate, but he did get his one chance to shine at being "the other anti-Trump Republican running." Which he did a fairly good job of, to be fair.

Tim Scott brings dignity and optimism and a slow speaking voice any preacher would be proud of to the stage. Unfortunately for him, "happy warrior" is not in vogue with Republican voters. Scott may be running to be somebody's vice president, which he'd probably do a fine job of, again: to be fair.

Chris Christie was somehow subdued tonight, which was kind of surprising. In all the ten dustups I noted, he was only in two of them. Which, again, is surprising since he's got the same sort of brash attitude as Trump, at times. Maybe that was his problem -- maybe he was the one candidate who really would have been helped if Trump was actually on the stage with him. Christie is a vicious schoolyard fighter, but we didn't see an enormous amount of it tonight.

Nikki Haley is definitely running for vice president. She picked a few fights of her own, and I have to say she held her own against all the guys on stage. She can indeed be feisty at times, on subjects that truly animate her. But she's not going to win the nomination, period.

Mike Pence was kind of surprising, since he did a lot to break out of his own "slow cadence" persona. He got into it in six of those ten dustups, and he was a lot more forceful (and a lot less robotic) than I've previously seen from him. Oh, sure, he did lapse back into that condescending "let me just explain it all to you" voice now and again, but when the fur was flying, Pence was a lot more aggressive than I ever would have thought.

Vivek Ramaswamy is a little firecracker. He is just bursting with energy, as previously mentioned he will say anything on any subject that pops into his head, and he seems to be running as a "Mini-Me Trump" -- taking even-more-outrageous stances than Trump himself. He also was the instigator of a lot of the dustups, as he tossed around playground taunts with abandon (he was in eight of those dustups, and was the instigator in most of them). Ramaswamy doesn't appear very presidential, of course, but then again neither did Trump. I could see a lot of Republican voters liking what they saw tonight from Vivek, however.

Ron DeSantis is... well... Ron DeSantis. He was easily the most robotic on stage, he struggles so hard to be a real boy, and he just oozes nerdiness. Which was all true tonight. But we really didn't see a whole lot of him, because everyone else had decided en masse to just leave him alone. So I kind of doubt he's going to see much of a debate bounce in his poll numbers afterwards.


OK, on to the fights. These were all one-on-one affairs, for the most part, and I'm leaving out the times when the candidate basically got into a fight with the audience (loud booing, for both Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson during the Trump segment of the show).

The first was (again, astonishingly) when Mike Pence and Vivek Ramaswamy got into it over the economy. I believe it started when Pence was daring all the other candidates to admit that they wanted to cut Social Security and Medicare, but whatever sub-issue it was, Ramaswamy responded with a: "Well, I didn't fully understand the point you were trying to make," and Pence shot back: "I'll explain it to you. I'll go slower this time." This was only a few minutes in to the debate, it should be noted -- both Pence and Ramaswamy were just itching to toss some punches around.

The next to-do came when Chris Christie decided to get a few cheap shots in at Ramaswamy's expense. "I've had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT," Christie sneered, and ripped Vivek for his opening line joke ("How did a guy with a funny-sounding name get on this stage?") and said the line was better when Barack Obama used it in the first place. Ramaswamy shot back: "Gimme that bear hug you gave Obama, you helped get him elected" (a rip on Christie for the Superstorm Sandy response), and they both snarled and gnashed for a few moments. Vivek had come to argue! And to taunt everyone else with lines like: "I'm the only one on this stage who hasn't been bought and paid for." That was the clear message -- Vivek wasn't having no guff!

Amusingly, right after this exchange, Tim Scott (who was then ironically asked by the moderator if he was bought and paid for, to which he answered "Absolutely not!") tried to shine a little sunny optimism on the proceedings, chiding everyone for "going back and forth and being childish," but this went over about as well as all the other times anyone's tried this in the last decade of Republican debates (which is to say, like a lead balloon).

Nikki Haley got into it over the subject of abortion with Mike Pence, after Haley showed some common sense and pointed out the reality of it being likely impossible to get any anti-abortion federal ban through 60 votes in the Senate. She also called on everyone to "humanize, not demonize" the discussion. Pence derided her for not showing leadership on the issue, and Haley once again pointed out the reality of the Senate. Pence tried :"70 percent of the American people agree with a 15-week abortion ban," and Haley shot right back: "But 70 percent of the Senate does not."

Vivek Ramaswamy and Mike Pence had a dustup on the subject of crime, with Pence exhibiting some sunny Reaganesque vision of America while Ramaswamy insisted: "It is not morning in America! It is a dark moment!" The two of them really went at it, to the point of it deteriorating into a shouting match where it was impossible to hear either of them.

I mean... seriously!... Mike Pence was holding his own in a shouting match! Could've knocked us over with a feather, but there it was....

Chris Christie then took his own shots at Ramaswamy, when the subject of Trump came up. To be fair, he was also fighting a battle with the crowd, who rained boos down upon his admission of the realities of Trump. At one point, one of the moderators had to turn to the crowd and give it all an "I will turn this car around and we will all go back home if you don't behave!" talking-to.

It all started with Christie calling Trump's conduct "beneath the office of the United States president" and ended (after getting into another shouting match with Vivek) with Christie denouncing Trump for saying he would "suspend the Constitution." This was Christie's finest moment of the night (no matter what the crowd thought), as he ended on: "You take an oath to uphold the Constitution, not to suspend it!"

Ramaswamy picked other fights with Mike Pence (over pardoning Trump, and then over Ukraine and Vladimir Putin), both of which allowed Pence to breathe some fire and generally show strength (which is not exactly his strong suit normally).

Nikki Haley, in her wheelhouse on foreign policy, then got into two separate dustups, one after the other, with both Ramaswamy and (the only one of the night) with Ron DeSantis. But the DeSantis one was a brief spat, so he didn't even really get to show how he'd even handle getting challenged on stage tonight.

The final do-si-do of the evening came at the very end, when Pence tried a canned cheap shot, when asked if presidential candidates over the age of 75 should have to take a mental competency test. Pence replied he thought the people should decide, and then said with a very small smirk: "We don't need a president who is too old... or too young." Ramaswamy pounced back with: "We need someone from a different generation!"


A few final points (this is long enough already). One, the moderators didn't have a whole lot of success controlling the situation for most of the debate. In the modern era, nobody plays by the rules anymore and the moderators are left making schoolmarmish rebukes while the candidates just largely ignore them and keep right on shouting over each other.

This started early on, when they asked the candidates a question (on climate change) in a "raise your hand if..." format. DeSantis just stomped all over this and it all fell apart (although a later "raise your hand" question did actually work, to be fair).

But this isn't a problem with just these moderators or Fox, and it can even be a problem if there is no audience. In the era of Trump, politeness and playing by the rules gets you nowhere.

And finally, the two funniest moments of the night (to end on an upbeat note). They came at the very start and the very end of the debate. At the beginning, lots of candidates trotted out their "open with a joke" attempts, and only one really worked well -- Doug Burgum, who (as mentioned) had torn his Achilles tendon this morning. He said, in self-depreciating fashion: "I think I took it too literally when they said: 'Go to Milwaukee! Break a leg!'" The audience gave him a big laugh for that one.

And at the end, the most bizarre question of the night was the final one -- on UFOs. As the question was being asked of Chris Christie, he interjected: "I get the UFO question? C'mon, man!" Christie just stood their laughing and shaking his head while the rest of the question was posed by the moderator, and the crowd had to laugh along with him.

OK, that's it for tonight. I'm going to go get some sleep now....

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


4 Comments on “The First Republican Presidential Debate”

  1. [1] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    agreed about pence, he actually fought a bit and did it well.

    i actually thought haley was the sharpest performer on the stage, for all the good it will do her.

    i found christie most disappointing. notwithstanding the degree of difficulty he faced with a clearly pro-trump audience, he needed to breathe fire, and most of what came out was just snark.

    ramaswamy may have been trying to steal obama's schtick, but he also seemed the most cuckoo, and it served haley well that she gave him what was in my opinion the sharpest rebuke he received.


  2. [2] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    looks like I nailed one funny thing. Quote from Bret Baier, after the debate:

    "I did feel like the dad driving the station wagon, going: 'You guys keep yelling, I'm going to turn this car around!'"



  3. [3] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    nypoet22 -

    Yeah, I agree, Haley did shine. But is the GOP really ready for common sense? Or a woman? Doubtful, at this point...


  4. [4] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Full quote:

    When they were booing and Chris Christie couldn’t talk, that’s the time that we both turned around to the audience. And at that point, I did feel like the dad driving the station wagon going, ‘You guys keep yelling, I’m going to turn this car around.


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