If they held a Republican primary debate and no one watched, did it even happen?
That variation on a classic philosophical puzzle haunted me while watching the fourth GOP debate from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on NewsNation Wednesday evening. As The Bulwark’s Jonathan Last pointed out earlier in the day, the network has… modest ratings, coming in 63rd on all of basic cable, far behind Fox News, MSNBC, and other news organizations that typically host presidential debates. It’s almost as if the Republican National Committee preferred to disappear the event.
Why would the RNC want to do that? Maybe because it’s an outpost of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, which is running 47 points ahead of second-placed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and would prefer to wrap things up before a single vote is cast.
That might sound anti-democratic, but it makes a sort of sense given the shape of the race. Trump is leading by miles. The one remaining candidate who regularly attacks Trump is languishing at under 3 percent in the polls. The others are only doing a little better while either praising or ignoring the former president. As long as this is the dynamic, it’s hard to see how Trump’s enormous lead faces any threat at all.
Yet the debate did happen—and it was a slugfest.
It’s hardly surprising things got maximally testy now that there are only four candidates sharing the stage. And the combat might make sense if one of these four was bound to end up as the GOP nominee. But again, the man overwhelmingly likely to prevail in the primaries wasn’t one of the combatants. So what we got, instead, was a bruising battle over who would be the runner-up.
In the end, like a proverbial circular firing squad, it mainly managed to diminish them all.
Early on, DeSantis went after former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, as one would expect, given that she’s in third place and only about 3 points behind the Florida governor. The barrages mainly involved DeSantis portraying himself as the toughest, smartest governor around (“We beat the teachers unions! We beat Fauci! We beat Soros!”) and finding points from Haley’s career that seemingly showed she lacks his alpha-male ruthlessness. Haley responded with equally picayune evidence of DeSantis’ impotence and ineptitude. If that’s all we got, the debate would have grown tiresome pretty quickly.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who often seemed to be serving as Haley’s wingman, went after DeSantis much harder, more than once accusing him of refusing to answer the moderators’ questions and implying he was drawing on memorized attack lines. It was a rerun of Christie’s brutal humiliation of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in the debate just before the 2016 New Hampshire primary. Rubio ended up finishing in fifth and his campaign never really recovered. Christie, meanwhile, finished sixth, quickly dropped out, and then became the first prominent Republican to endorse Trump.
But now, nearly eight years later, Christie’s entire reason for running is to act as the sole truth-telling Trump-slayer on the stage—and that apparently requires him to take shots at DeSantis for, among other things, displaying insufficient anti-Trump zeal.
He’s right on the merits, but this is, of course, a political campaign, and the polls tells us the “attack Trump” lane is only a couple of percentage points wide, which implies DeSantis knows better how to run for president in the post-2016 Republican Party. Unfortunately for him, he only knows enough to get as high as the low teens himself.
Then there was Vivek Ramaswamy, who reached unprecedented heights of loathsomeness on Wednesday night, attacking and insulting Haley and Christie relentlessly with his distinctive brand of smarmy anti-charisma when he wasn’t making very-online right-wing pronouncements about how “we’re sliding into fascism under Biden!”
That Ramaswamy has managed to remain in the respectable mid-single digits for months and has outlasted a former vice president, a sitting senator, and a sitting governor in the race is all you need to know about where the GOP is today.
Other than Trump, Ramaswamy is the only pure populist running, though his style couldn’t be more different—with smart-guy, rapid-fire bullet-points about the insidious “deep state” and nefarious elites strafing his opponents. He’s also utterly lacking in humor and heavy on petulant self-regard. Everyone else is bought and sold and luxuriating in the pockets of billionaires, but not him. We know because he said so.
A tiny part of me can imagine finding Trump appealing, but I can’t do it with Ramaswamy. He’s just too charmless. Yet 5 percent of the Republican electorate (twice as many as those who support Christie) wants him to be president.
I assume nearly all of them will settle for Trump when the inevitable happens. That would lift Trump into the high 60s, while DeSantis and Haley keep duking it out in the low teens until one of them prevails and we finally learn which will win the honor of finishing a mere 50 or so points behind the nominee.
I’ll say this for Wednesday night’s debate: It got us just a little bit closer to that thoroughly predictable endpoint.