Thursday, January 11, 2024

BTRTN Debate Report: DeSantis puts Haley on the Defensive, and Ekes Out a Crucial Debate Win

Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley are in a ferocious battle to emerge – rapidly – as the champion of the “non-Trump lane.” But with Haley way out in front in New Hampshire, it was much more critical for Ron DeSantis to turn in a strong debate performance and preserve his slim lead for second place in Iowa. They tore into each other from the get-go, but Ron DeSantis had his strongest debate yet… just when he needed it.


“Go to!"

Geez, if Nikki Haley said it once, she must have said it twenty times.

After a while, it began to sound shrill, whiny, ineffective, and even counterproductive... implying that Haley could not handle the incoming in real time. Worst of all, the drone of scripted repetition seemed exactly at odds with the very traits that Haley had used to win each of the four prior debates… her humanity, emotional engagement, and sharp thinking in the moment.

After these debates, it is often an easy out for pundits to say things like “it’s hard to see how the overall momentum of the race changed tonight,” or “the supporters of each candidate each heard enough to maintain their loyalty,” and of course the ever-reliable “the real winner of tonight’s debate was Donald Trump.” Probably all are true about last night. But those are all cop-outs on the question of who won the debate.

Perhaps a fair assessment would be to say that Ron DeSantis won the first hour of the debate, and that Nikki Haley had the edge in the second hour. The problem for Haley is that first impressions are lasting… and that her second hour did not do enough to offset the initial imprint giving DeSantis the upper hand. Ron DeSantis succeeded in taking her off her winning formula and putting her on the defensive… and it is always tough to rely on your defense to score points.

So give the evening to DeSantis, but not by much. But perhaps by just enough for DeSantis to preserve his thin sliver of a lead over Haley and secure his essential second place finish in Iowa, enabling him to justify staying in the race and hoping for a miracle in New Hampshire. By that measure, it was a big night for the Florida governor.

Unfortunately for DeSantis, news coverage of the debate was overshadowed by the news that Chris Christie had dropped out of the race just hours earlier. Christie's eloquent and impassioned exit address was, in turn, overshadowed by his overly frank assessment of Haley and DeSantis made too near a hot mic.  If Christie’s exit was intended to help a rival beat Trump, saying that Haley “wasn’t up to this,” and was about to get “smoked” sure didn’t help.

But let’s start with the best news about this debate… we did not have to listen to one word of conspiratorial gibberish from Vivek Ramaswamy, who had been voted off Sycofantasy Island due to low polling.  Give the GOP credit: they designed a qualification system for their debates that ensured that weaker candidates were winnowed out along the way.  If the candidates don’t meet increasingly strenuous qualifying criteria, they don’t get a podium, a microphone, and license to spew hallucinations on national television.  The qualifying requirements have gradually improved the debates: the fewer the debaters, the less panicked shouting, interrupting, talking over each other, and the less appearing to be an Animal House food fight.  

To qualify for the stage last night, the candidates had to have achieved “at least 10 percent in three separate national and/or Iowa polls of Republican caucus-goers or primary voters.”  Only three candidates qualified. Donald Trump – at or just over 50% in Iowa polling -- did not bother to show up, preferring to stage his own counter-programming on FOX. You can’t argue with success: Trump hasn’t shown up to a single debate, and his lead in Iowa has grown.

With just five days to go before the Iowa Caucuses, the stakes could not possibly have been higher for book-banning, woke-slamming Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who enters the final days of campaigning with all the momentum of an x axis, flat-lining through eternity.  Just a year ago, the cheesy stunt Governor was the Great Hope of the White Party, clearly viewed as the man who could finally wrest the GOP from the grip of Donald Trump.

Now, having fumbled every aspect of presidential campaigning, Ron DeSantis knows that he absolutely, positively, unambiguously cannot fall into third place in Iowa. Just days away lies the New Hampshire Primary, where DeSantis is actually in fourth place, and where Nikki Haley is primed to clean his clock, DeSantis must finish second in Iowa, or his campaign is lights out.

So the final debate before the Iowa Caucuses could not have been a better match-up: it was just DeSantis and Haley, with only a couple of points separating them in the latest polling, and each desperately fighting to emerge from Iowa with the second place win that could establish their claim as the candidate around whom the “non-Trump” Republicans should unite.  

The two candidates came out of the gate swinging wildly at each other, hurling insults and accusations, mostly about how egregiously the other has been lying.  Jake Tapper opened the questioning by asking DeSantis why voters should vote for him. He did not waste much time before characterizing Haley as “another mealy-mouthed politician” who “does her donors’ bidding.”

It was right from the get-go that Nikki Haley urged viewers to go visit Obviously a thoroughly planned debate tactic, Haley even had a cute little joke ready to go, warning college students not to make it a drinking game for the debate, because they would end up drunk. Cringe! Haley made Chris Christie’s much maligned “Donald Duck” line seem funny by contrast. 

But the problem was that Haley would robotically repeat her mantra throughout the first hour of the debate, as if the invocation of a URL would somehow inoculate her from her opponent’s charges. It made Haley look weak. It was na├»ve. Did she really think that after two hours of listening to these two rip each other to pieces, we were all going to go to a website to do fact-checking?

In contrast, Ron DeSantis made very specific charges about Haley… that she was beholden to her donors, that she raised taxes, that she is a “carbon copy of Biden on Ukraine,” that she supported a two-state solution, that she couldn’t implement school choice, that she invited Disney to South Carolina… on and on. Maybe DeSantis was exaggerating, maybe he was lying, but he was making very, very specific charges of flip-flops, liberal leanings, and ineffective governance, and Haley would respond by chanting her cute URL.

For that first hour of the debate, the pace was absolutely frantic, with both candidates sounding like fast-talking car salesmen.  Both are well-informed policy wonks, but both made the mistake of thinking that cramming a great deal of information into ninety second responses made for good communication. It is hard to imagine that even the most well-informed voter could absorb important information being hurled willy-nilly at such velocity. It didn’t help that each candidate raced through their prepared talking points so that they could get on to the business of accusing their opponent of failures, inconsistency, or outright deceit.

Perhaps one way to consider the ineffectiveness of speed-talking through arcane policy-wonk dialect is to recall the powerful style of Ronald Reagan. Watch debate performances of the Gipper, who would prefer to make a point by slowly recounting a homespun tale about a typical American family. Last night, Haley and DeSantis sounded like Alvin, Theodore, and Simon of the Chipmunks doing a recording session of tax code.

But DeSantis was canny, and knew how to play to the deep, dark redness of Iowa’s Republican voters. Playing the age-old game of turning a strength into a weakness, DeSantis castigated Haley’s term as U.N. Ambassador as an example of her being in the embrace of woke, liberal, globalist philosophy: “You can take the ambassador out of the United Nations, but you can't take the United Nations out of the ambassador.” In red country, was a very effective slam.

As the debate settled into its second hour, the two candidates each seemed to calm down and improve their communication. Nikki Haley finally found a way to put DeSantis on his heels by making the very shortcomings of his campaign a measure of his incompetence. She ripped into DeSantis’s flailing campaign, saying that he had “blown through $150 million” by flying private jets and other wasteful measures, and that his campaign was “exploding.”

This line of argument hit paydirt: it managed to simultaneously point out that DeSantis’s campaign was faring poorly relative to her own, and also brought into question his competency as a manager, which has been essential to his brand. A critical staple of DeSantis’s messaging is that he is an effective governor who gets things done and has implemented a conservative agenda. When she finally said “Ron is lying because Ron is losing,” it was a more effective slam than a dozen mentions of a URL. Perhaps Haley’s very best line of the night was when a flustered DeSantis defended his managerial competency by returning to his record of governor rather than contesting her assertions about his campaign. “I think I hit a nerve,” Haley observed. She was right.

Haley had another good moment on foreign policy, when she once again gave her full-throated support for Ukraine. DeSantis played to the Iowa audience, repeating his now well-worn trope of asking whether funds should go to our southern border rather than Ukraine’s border. Give Haley credit for sticking with her position, even in the most hostile environment.

Leading up to the debate, an endless parade of pundits expressed shock and amazement that neither Haley nor DeSantis spent much time or money in the campaigns going after Donald Trump, preferring to focus attack ads on each other. Duh. It’s not that hard to figure out: these two are terrified of alienating the MAGA base or incurring Trump’s rage. True to form, neither spent much time on Donald Trump unless debate moderators Jake Tapper and Dana Bash forced them to. Fortunately, the CNN team did.

Tapper asked each candidate to assess how their own understanding of the Constitution squared with Donald Trump’s. Haley womaned up: she said, more boldly and unambiguously than ever before: “Trump lost it. Biden won it.” She said that “Trump would have to answer for the fact that he wanted to change the votes.” Asked about Trump’s legal team’s bonkers legal defense that the President is immune from any criminal prosecution, Haley said “that’s ridiculous.” When she finally stopped chanting a URL, second-hour Haley found her footing.

Given the same question, DeSantis tried to be cute, excusing Trump’s assertions as just so much “word vomit on social media.” Reverting to his classic form, DeSantis ducked, answered a different question than the one Tapper asked, pretended that he had provided an answer, and hoped Tapper would move on.

The second hour was won by Nikki Haley. But by then, the damage was done. What was that URL again, Nikki?

Measured against the historical standards of primary debates, this one was quite substantive, quite serious, and quite informative for those who could tolerate its wonkiness.

The tragedy of today’s Republican Party is that both Haley and DeSantis are more serious, more substantive, and better qualified to be President of the United States than Donald Trump.

And yet both vibrate like tuning forks the moment they are asked to challenge Trump head on.

If only they were as committed to ripping into Trump as they are to ripping into each other, we might be seeing different numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire.

So sure, Trump won.

But very soon, it will be down to one GOP rival – and Donald Trump won’t be able to Donald Duck that debate.  

Nikki, you must demand your chance to debate one-on-one with Trump.

And when that time comes, don’t hide behind a dopey URL.


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