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The Second Republican Presidential Debate

[ Posted Thursday, September 28th, 2023 – 16:36 UTC ]

Last night, at the Republican shrine of Saint Ronald of Reagan, seven Republican presidential candidates appeared on the same stage to debate each other. Of course, the real winner of the debate was the candidate who didn't show up: Donald Trump. Even the moderator, at the very start, had to get a little snarky about this, beginning with: "Let's meet the candidates who have qualified -- and chosen -- to be on the stage tonight...."

Not too surprisingly, the second debate shared one glaring similarity with the first: utter chaos. The networks hosting these debates have a hard choice to make -- they can either cut off (or heavily dial the volume down) the microphones of all the candidates who did not just get asked a question, or they can just succumb to the fact that Donald Trump has changed debate rules forever (by not having a shred of decorum or respect for the rules). This was made obvious once again, last night.

People shouted all over each other. Candidates jumped in whenever they felt like it. Sometimes they were rewarded, when the moderators just let them speak, and sometimes it devolved quickly into a shouting match between the candidates as everyone tried to jump in at once, but although the moderators did get exasperated and admonished the candidates (to the point of even threatening to cut off the mic of Doug Burgum at one point), it didn't change things much.

The Trump-less debate seemed once again to be a "kiddie-table debate," since none of the candidates on the stage were within a whopping 40 points of Trump in the polls. Once again, several of the candidates on stage seemed to be auditioning for Trump's veep slot, or perhaps a cushy gig as a television commentator.

The most astonishing thing (to me, at any rate) about last night's debate was what was asked... and what wasn't asked. There wasn't a single question about Donald Trump's growing legal problems, even though several of his court cases made the news this week. Nary a question was posed about it all, though. Even though, for many other subjects (the border, for instance), the candidates gave the standard "we are a country of laws" and other "pro-law-and-order" slogans -- which would have been the perfect time to bring up Trump's 91 outstanding felony charges, you would think.

Abortion did finally get a question (almost at the very end), but what was truly surprising was how downright liberal the questions were overall. At times, it actually seemed like the moderators thought they were addressing a group of Democrats, in fact.

Don't believe me? Here is just a partial list of the subjects of some of the questions last night:

The first jarring question was about the striking autoworkers, where the moderator pointed out that C.E.O. pay was 386 times what the average worker made, and actually used the phrase "the richest one percent."

The increasing cost of child care for parents.

Ronald Reagan's amnesty for undocumented workers, a path to citizenship, DACA and the Dreamers.

Pointing out that 90 percent of the fentanyl coming across the southern border passed through legal crossings, most often carried by American citizens.

Ron DeSantis was asked about the high rate of people in Florida with no health insurance: "Why is your record in Florida worse than the national average?" This question was followed by a question about people going through "healthcare bankruptcy," for good measure.

Chris Christie was asked about New Jersey schools and why minority students were doing so poorly, and when asked what he'd do about that as president, the question was phrased: "Would you address minority students first?"

Mike Pence was actually asked with a straight face (pun fully intended) what he would do to protect L.G.B.T.Q. Americans from increasing violent attacks against them.

As you can see, this is not a list of questions in the right-wing comfort zone. Perhaps it was Fox pairing with Univision that caused this shift, but for whatever reason it certainly was an odd direction for the moderators to go.

Not that I am complaining, mind you -- I thought it was indeed interesting to hear the candidates asked some things that were far from their comfort zones. It was just surprising and unexpected, that's all.

General debate comments aside (and without any sort of conclusion at the end), rather than go through the entire debate blow-by-blow, I thought I'd share my thoughts on each candidate's performance individually this time. And for no particular reason, I wrote these all out in alphabetic order, so here you go:


Doug Burgum

Doug Burgum looked like a man who knew this is probably going to be his last debate. He began by frantically jumping in on pretty much every question, but by the debate's end, Burgum was eminently forgettable. He touted North Dakota as a conservative paradise, but no one was really buying it (or even listening). Will he continue to spend his own money chasing an ever-increasing polling bar to enter these debates? Well, the answer is likely: Yes, right up until he doesn't.


Chris Christie

Chris Christie did his thing again last night, which is to get under Donald Trump's skin as much as possible. This has always been his preordained role for the 2024 GOP primary race, and he has settled into it (while occasionally sending some barbs at the other candidates as well).

Christie, more than any of the others (and there were actually a few) tried to call Trump out last night, and he did so in increasingly personal terms. From early on:

Donald Trump -- he hides behind the walls of his golf clubs, and won't show up here to answer questions like all the rest of us are up here to answer. He put seven trillion on the debt, and he should be in the room to answer these questions.

This sentiment was echoed by Ron DeSantis, but the line Christie will be remembered for in last night's debate (whether you remember it with a laugh or with a cringe) was undoubtedly:

Donald Trump should be here to answer for that but he's not. And I want to look at that camera right now and tell you, Donald: I know you are watching. You can't help yourself. I know you're watching. Okay? And you are not here tonight not because of polls and not because of your indictments. You're not here tonight because you're afraid of being on this stage and defending your record. You're ducking these things. And let me tell you what's going to happen. You keep doing that? No one up here's going to call you Donald Trump anymore. We're going to call you Donald Duck.

Many news outlets reported that this joke/playground insult/nickname "fell flat" with the audience. But it didn't, really. Christie got a very audible "Wooo-eee" sort of sound that was much louder than the audience reaction for some of the others who tried zingers (which we'll get to in a moment). The audience may not have liked Christie's quip or they may just have been astonished by it (it's impossible to tell, not having been present), but they did indeed audibly react.

Christie did get in one other memorable shot at Trump, at the very end. One of the moderators tried one of those cutesy little ideas that sound good on paper (or must have, to somebody at Fox). After the final break -- and with only minutes to go -- the moderator told the candidates that there were now markers at their podium and they should mark down "who they would vote off the island," in a Survivor-esque attempt at getting the candidates to all gang up on somebody. She did make a cogent point, that unless the field starts narrowing considerably, Donald Trump is all but certain to win. But there was an open revolt from the candidates and nobody showed anything they had written down (again, more on this in a moment).

But Christie apparently did write down something, so he was directly asked if he would show it. He declined, but read the name he said he had written down: "I vote Donald Trump off the island right now." It was a clever bit of quick thinking, turning the inane reality-show exercise on its head, and Christie gave a good follow-up reason for why he wrote Trump's name down, in what was pretty much the final word of the evening.


Ron DeSantis

In the first debate, Ron DeSantis was seemingly invisible to the other candidates on the stage. He is the solid second-place-runner and has been for months, but nobody took a single shot at him a month ago. That changed, this time. DeSantis finally took some incoming fire.

He tried to dish some out, too, and even took a few shots at Trump (mostly for not being present), as well as attempting to defend himself and turn a few attacks against the other candidates on the stage.

But, as usual, he's a dweeby little guy whose voice is annoying and who just doesn't seem to possess even a shred of charisma.

Nikki Haley probably did the most damage with one of these attacks, hitting DeSantis for making campaign promises while running for governor to ban fracking and ban offshore drilling in Florida. Haley overstated her case, but was right about the main issue, and DeSantis just flat-out lied in response.

I will give DeSantis credit on one front, at least. He led the revolt against the "Who would you vote off the island?" tactic, at the end. He loudly refused to do so and complained that a presidential debate should be more dignified than that. The other candidates all immediately followed his lead and also refused to participate. It pains me to say it, but DeSantis actually exhibited leadership, which was then followed by his rivals. And it's not even the first time he's done so. In the first debate, the moderators asked a "show of hands" type of question (on climate change), and DeSantis shot that one down too for similar reasons -- which all the other candidates immediately embraced. It's a subtle thing to be sure, but DeSantis was indeed the only candidate who showed some actual effective leadership -- in revolt against the inanities of the moderators -- in the midst of a live debate.


Nikki Haley

From where I sit, Nikki Haley probably "won" the debate last night. She continued the same game plan she followed in the first debate, which could be described best as: "I am the sensible, level-headed adult in the room." She also showed the ability to get feisty and take it as well as she was dishing it out (in one memorable exchange with fellow South Carolinian Tim Scott, she goaded him with: "Bring it, Tim!").

While it was jarring for some to see the two South Carolina candidates go at it with each other (they have not done so up to this point, and before this campaign were pretty friendly -- Haley actually appointed Scott to his Senate seat while she was governor), what wasn't surprising was that, once again, Haley was the chief antagonist of Vivek Ramaswamy. Haley's sneering contempt for Ramaswamy (the other Indian-American candidate in the field) was raw and unmistakable. And she got in the best zinger of the entire night, when she said in a very exasperated tone: "Honestly, every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say."

But it wasn't just Ramaswamy Haley trained her sights on. Tim Scott was directly taunted by Haley for not getting anything done while he's been in the Senate ("Twelve years! Where have you been, Tim?") and easily turned away his opposition-research-based counterattack (which was possibly the stupidest of the night -- that Haley was somehow responsible for $50,000 in new curtains for the U.N. ambassador's residence, that Barack Obama had already paid for).

Haley did have the occasional stumble, but few noticed (during her answer on the looming government shutdown Haley tried to get behind the concept of withholding pay for members of Congress during shutdowns, but she got it backwards: "No pay, no budget!").


Mike Pence

As Mike Pence might say: "Lordy, Lordy... that was just bad."

Mike Pence is as boring as (fill in the blank... white bread, dry toast, watching paint dry, etc...). Plus, his smarmy speaking style just drips with condescension, which isn't fun to listen to. And that's before you get to the fact that a large percentage of the Republican base considers him a traitor to their Dear Leader.

Pence tried, he really did. He just failed -- spectacularly -- with everything he tried, that's all. He even tried a joke about how he was "sleeping with a teacher," to no avail (this was in response to Chris Christie snarking about Joe Biden: "the president of the United States is sleeping with a member of the teachers' Union!").

He had memorized a few zingers or jokes or whatever-you-call-them, and the audience absolutely yawned. The worst one of the night was: "I served in Congress for 12 years... it seemed longer," which got precisely zero reaction from the crowd -- no laughs, no gasps, no applause, no boos... just nothing. I was reminded of Jeb Bush's infamous video where he begs an audience: "Please clap," in fact. That's how downright cringeworthy Pence's performance was.

Pence was a total non-presence last night. Today, off the top of my head, I can't even remember anything he said all night long. He is never going to be the Republican nominee, but he's probably not going to realize that for many moons to come.


Vivek Ramaswamy

It's interesting that Vivek Ramaswamy and Tim Scott are the final two in this alphabetical list, because the two seem to have swapped personae from the previous debate. Vivek, in the first debate, was just scathingly insulting to pretty much everyone else on the stage (notably accusing them all of being "bought and paid for"). He flung insults while delivering the most hyperactive performance ever seen in a presidential debate (well, OK, "a debate that didn't include Donald Trump," I suppose...).

Last night, Ramaswamy all but invited all the other candidates to sing a chorus of "Kumbaya." No, really! He praised all the other candidates as being "good people on this stage," and even tried to unite everyone around Ronald Reagan's "eleventh commandment" ("Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican"). Which was just jaw-droppingly ridiculous, after Ramaswamy's first debate performance. He kept admonishing the others with lines like: "Hurling personal insults isn't helping," much to their astonishment.

Ramaswamy is largely self-funded, so it's not like his big-money donors sat him down and told him to change his ways. But he must have noticed that while he did get the lion's share of attention in the first debate, it didn't translate into a big bump in the polls for him -- what it did instead was to send his "dislikeable" numbers through the roof. The universal reaction to his performance was probably: "Boy is that guy annoying!"

So he tried not to be obnoxious last night. He must have dialed down the number of pre-debate pots of coffee he drank, or something. He was trying to project mellow and likeable, but that worked about as well as you'd expect. He can put on a "I am likeable" face, and he's still incredibly annoying. But at least he didn't jump in to answer every question or challenge everything anyone else said, as he did last time. My guess is that "Can't we all just get along Vivek" is going to change once again for the third debate, but that's just a gut feeling.


Tim Scott

Tim Scott, on the other hand, decided to eat his Wheaties yesterday morning. It was indeed widely reported that his big-money donors were not impressed with his first debate performance (which he largely snoozed through) and so Scott came out fighting last night. His most memorable dustup was with Haley, although it wasn't the only one by far. His first to-do last night was, ironically, with Ramaswamy.

However, Tim Scott (like a few others on the stage) has always seemed like a candidate running to be Donald Trump's vice-presidential pick, and last night did nothing to change that impression.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


5 Comments on “The Second Republican Presidential Debate”

  1. [1] 
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  2. [2] 
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  3. [3] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    If there was an edit function around here, I would probably have deleted my [2] by now. But, there isn't, so ...

  4. [4] 
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    Governor Newsom appoints someone who holds the seat until the next election. The big problem, and why they were pulling a Weekend at Bernie's with her, is it requires Republican cooperation to get someone to take her place on the Judiciary Committee. No more judges until the next swear-in...

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