Thursday, December 7, 2023

BTRTN: Failure to Launch… Hyper-Feisty Debate Yields No Clear Winner (Except, uh, Trump), and a Bigger Question Lingers

Last night's Republican debate reflected the gloves-off desperation of candidates who sensed that Nikki Haley was pulling away from the pack. Chris Christie was superb, doling out punishing blows to Vivek Ramaswamy and Ron DeSantis. Nikki Haley emerged with a draw. And, yes, the guy who stayed home won again.

The story going into last night’s Republican debate in Tuscaloosa, Alabama was all about what George Bush the Elder once called “the big mo.” Momentum. In politics, it is solid gold. It is the perception that you are the candidate on the rise, on the move, that you’ve got that special sauce and snap crackle pop.  

When candidates have “the big mo,” donors flock. Pundits begin to speak of inevitability. Perception can morph into reality if the bandwagon suddenly balloons with voters climbing on board.

In the past few weeks, the candidacy of Nikki Haley took on the mantle of “the big mo,” as very strong debate performances and rising polling numbers led to a perception that she was the one Republican candidate around whom the anti-Trump faction should coalesce. Her rise triggered two very significant endorsements. The first was the support of the Americans for Prosperity Action, the huge Super PAC backed by billionaire Charles Koch. The second was when Wall Street titan Jamie Dimon, CEO of Chase, threw his support behind Haley, and even challenged Democrats to help out:

“Even if you’re a very liberal Democrat, I urge you, help Nikki Haley, too. Get a choice on the Republican side that might be better than Trump.” Apparently, some Wall Street liberals were actually of like mind: Linked In founder Reid Hoffman – an A-list Dem donor – sent a whopping quarter-million bucks to a Nikki Haley Super PAC.

The stage was set. If Nikki Haley could muster a big win in last night’s debate, the perception that she truly had the big mo’ could cause donors for other candidates to abandon ship and lead pundits to declare her the winner of the anti-Trump sweepstakes. If, if, if…

What really happened last night was much messier, rather ugly, and generally inconclusive. Haley did fine but did not have the breakout performance that would have sent anyone packing. Ron DeSantis continues to be underwhelming, but he wasn’t bad enough to be voted off the island. Chris Christie did extremely well in articulating a position that has absolutely no traction in today’s Republican Party.  

And Chris Christie labeled Vivek Ramaswamy “the most obnoxious blowhard in America.” Boy, did Ramaswamy earn that title last night.   

All sound and fury, signifying nothing.  Close, inconclusive debates are a winning hand for the indicted former President. He’s been right all along: without Trump, these debates are largely kiddie table sideshows in which the children fling mashed potatoes at each other while no one pays attention.  On Wednesday night, we saw the growing panic of Haley’s rivals, who were desperately trying to put a halt to her momentum. That tells you all you need to know.

The headlines are simple:

Nikki Haley knew that she was going into the debate with a target on her back, earned by the sudden geyser of momentum in polling and financial support. But even with that advanced knowledge, Haley at times seemed a bit stunned by the ferocity of the incoming, and hesitant and uncertain about how to handle it. The warmth and humanity of prior debate performances was missing, as she was constantly put on defense and seemed to spend the evening clenching her teeth or biting her tongue. After all, she is going to need the support and, ideally, the endorsement of her opponents if she does emerge as the sole candidate in the non-Trump lane, so last night was not the night to call any of her opponents “scum.”

Haley’s rivals had figured out exactly how to play Haley’s recent good fortune against her. Both DeSantis and Ramaswamy painted her endorsement from the Koch PAC and Chase’s Jamie Dimon as evidence that Haley was in the pocket of Wall Street liberals. Her response – that her opponents were “jealous” of her endorsements – was clever, but did not actually address their underlying attack… that she was the darling of the liberal media.

It was far from her best performance, but she maintained her poise, had a solid evening, and took no big chances, perhaps aware that her three testosterone-laden opponents were not scoring any direct hits.

Haley’s grade: no gain, no loss. It was not the ringing win she sought, but she certainly did not lose ground last night.

Chris Christie had the best evening of the four candidates, but somehow even in excelling at debate he illustrated just how far out of step he is with Donald Trump’s party. Christie slammed Ron DeSantis, pointing out that the Florida Governor never answers direct questions, and castigated all three of his rivals for saying that they would support Trump even if he was a convicted felon.

Christie absolutely flattened the visibly smarmy Vivek Ramaswamy, saying that his prior debate performances had earned him the title of “most obnoxious blowhard in America.”

In the end, though, Christie’s essential strategy remains fatally flawed: he felt he could win by speaking truth to a party that long ago decided that the truth was irrelevant. Christie may have won the debate on points, and he may get a bump in the polls, but this man will never be the candidate of this Republican Party.

With each debate, Ron DeSantis has become a tiny bit less dour, stiff, and wooden… but it is too little “less” and a lot too late. DeSantis had his best debate yet – a low bar, to be sure – but the essential narrative of Ron DeSantis is now hardening cement: he is a cold, mechanical, mean-spirited robot competing in a race that requires humanity, warmth, humor, and wisdom. The more you get to know him, the less you like him.

At one point, the NewsNation moderator noted that DeSantis had begun questioning Trump’s mental acuity in stump speeches, and asked DeSantis if Donald Trump was mentally fit to be president. DeSantis stumbled, stuttered, equivocated, mumbled, filibustered, foundered, and floundered, but refused to say a direct “yes” or “no.” Once again, it was Chris Christie bringing down the big club on a rival. Christie badgered DeSantis unmercifully, but the Florida governor refused to give the simple one-word answer, yes or no. Christie doubled down, accusing him of being too frightened to tell the truth. It didn’t help when DeSantis avoided a “yes” or “no” on two questions about whether he would send the U.S. military into action – one about a hypothetical mission to rescue American hostages in Gaza, and a different question about defending Taiwan in the event of an attack.

DeSantis needed to have a huge night – a gigantic night – and he did not produce it. He will be lucky to limp out of Tuscaloosa with the status quo intact.

Vivek Ramaswamy remains an enigma in this race. Last night he was so vicious, cruel, and hostile to Nikki Haley that Chris Christie intervened on her behalf. Ramaswamy called Haley “corrupt,” basing this serious allegation on, uh, what? The fact that Haley served on the Board of Boeing after leaving government? That she got the endorsement of a major Wall Street player? Ramaswamy has alleged in his campaign literature that he intends to be a “uniter,” and he may be right: last night he united the entire arena – audience, candidates, and heck, even the moderators -- in the common belief that Vivek Ramaswamy is a frightening, unhinged, weapons-grade jerk.

Ramaswamy’s manic peevishness was on full display when he zealously condemned Haley for not knowing the name of three provinces in Eastern Ukraine. Like an excitable prepubescent who spent too much time watching Jeopardy, Ramaswamy taunted Haley to “name the provinces,” smugly withholding his trivia as if it were the ultimate “gotcha” moment in campaign debate history. After one particularly painful childish rant, Haley was given fifteen seconds by the moderator to respond to a Ramaswamy allegation. She paused and simply said, “It’s not worth my time to respond to him.” She managed to say it in a way that made it seem like a far bigger insult than calling him scum.

Late in the debate, Ramaswamy seemed to wander just a bit too far out on the spectrum when he concluded that the “real enemy is the deep state,” and went full frontal non-linear in announcing that both the 2020 and 2016 elections (the latter being the one Trump won) were rigged, and that January 6 was an “inside job.” Yikes.

The eternal problem with spoiled rich kid candidates is that they can keep going as long as they want. It’s a pity, because it is time for Vivek to pack it in, go home, and make way for the adults in the room.  Ramaswamy gets a D- for his efforts.

Donald Trump didn’t even bother to stage an alternative event in the same time slot as this mess. Perhaps he finally realized that having more Republicans tune into the debate would actually help him even more than counter-programming.  Sure enough, the candidates on the stage spent so much time and energy ripping into each other that no one emerged unscathed. At times, it seemed as if no comment could be made without a rival candidates hissing “that’s a lie.” In the end, all the candidates were weakened relative to the guy who stayed home.

Donald Trump won again by doing nothing.

While each of the candidates seemed more willing to go after Trump than in prior debates, the simple fact is that only Christie plays hardball. Nikki Haley thinks she is being very brave and “speaking truth to power” because she acknowledges that Trump ran up the national debt by seven trillion dollars.

Hey, Ambassador Haley… that’s not the problem we have with Trump! It is his big lie, his inciting of an insurrection, the Federal and State indictments for attempting to undo the results of a free and fair election. You never hear Haley or DeSantis talk about those things. Christie does – and he calls out Haley and DeSantis for failing to talk about them. To refuse to condemn Trump for these actions is to embolden him and empower him.

In the end, the unfolding drama in the Republican Party – which is to jump on the Haley bandwagon or resign yourself to another Trump nomination – is actually beginning to put a very interesting spin on Democratic politics. Jamie Dimon’s challenge to Democrats is worth considering quite carefully.

It is the new question that people are asking Democrats: what is more important to you… that Biden wins, or that Trump does not win?

Those two options are not the same.  There is a small but very real path for Nikki Haley to win the nomination. It is simple: she has to emerge so strongly from Iowa and New Hampshire that all other candidates drop out or become microscopic rounding errors, so that she can head into her home state of South Carolina going one-on-one against Trump.  The odds are very long, but it could be done – and her nomination would ensure that Trump would not win the Presidency.

So for all you Dems who say that you care more about Trump losing than Biden winning, Nikki Haley is a solution well worth considering. You achieve your objective without ever living through the terrifying risk of a Trump v. Biden election. 

Ah, but there’s the rub. Many people think Haley would have a better chance of beating Joe Biden than Donald Trump.

If you honestly believe that it is more important that Trump lose than that Biden win, you may be perfectly happy to roll the dice in a Haley v. Biden race than stare down the barrel of a Trump v. Biden race.

And if Haley wins the Presidency, you end up with both outcomes…Biden loses, but Trump does not win.

Part of why this angle on Republican politics is growing in importance is because of the tidal wave of terrifying new language coming out of Donald Trump in recent weeks. He has been using code words out of Nazi Germany to describe his political enemies. He has been openly talking about a plan to seek and destroy political enemies. He did, in fact, tell Sean Hannity that he intended to be “a dictator only on day one” of a second Trump administration. In recent weeks, Trump is becoming more and more unabashedly anti-democracy, anti-rule of law, and ruthless authoritarian.

For many Democrats, the idea that Trump could actually win the 2024 election is the most terrifying political possibility of our lifetimes, and perhaps in the lifetime of our nation.

If you are a Democrat for whom the single most important thing in the world is that Donald Trump never again sets foot in the White House, you realize that the most certain way to make sure that happens is for Nikki Haley to win the Republican nomination.  Because you know that if Trump wins the nomination, it is going to be an agonizingly close election, with a very, very real chance that Trump could win – and end democracy in America forever.

Dimon’s comment is actually a very provocative notion: that Democrats should be giving serious thought to helping Nikki Haley win, with campaign donations, to be sure… but why stop there? With no contest in the Democratic Primaries, should Dems in early Republican primary states register Republican and vote for Haley?

But Dems must be aware of the law of unintended consequences… in trying to ensure that Trump never gets the chance to run for President, Democrats who help Haley may actually be helping the Republicans select a candidate who is more likely to beat Biden in the general election.

Last night’s debate is not going to change much.

But one idea is emerging and crystalizing.

If Joe Biden wins in 2024, we can all breath a sigh of relief that our democracy is safe for another four years.

If Donald Trump wins in 2024, there is a very, very, VERY real chance that democracy in America ends, that MSNBC, The New York Times, and The Washington Post are shut down, and that the DoJ, FBI, and the military are turned into search-and-destroy organizations that hunt down, terrorize, arrest, and incarcerate the perceived enemies of Donald Trump. Think I’m exaggerating? Read what Donald Trump has been saying, out loud and in public.

And then there is a third option…

If Nikki Haley wins, Democrats struggle with frustrating vetoes, over-reaching executive orders, and terrible policies. We have a frustrating, difficult, lousy four years.

But we still have a democracy.

I am thinking of sending a few bucks to Nikki Haley’s campaign.

Maybe we all should.


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1 comment:

  1. With Koch network funding, Haley has enough money to get her to South Carolina Republican primary on Feb. 24. Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada contests ought to winnow the field and provide a clearer basis for evaluating Haley's potential.
    If DeSantis has embarrassing losses (as seems likely), if Ramaswamy is revealed as 2024's Bobby Jindal (though not as nice or intelligent), and if Christie drops out with an endorsement of Haley, THEN Haley may have a chance of beating Trump. Bonus points if Haley can convince Cheney to endorse or "No Labels" to say it was not going to have a candidate.


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