Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis, and Vivek Ramaswamy onstage Wednesday night. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Live from Simi Valley: A Hot Mess of a Debate

With Trump running away with the primary and thousands of miles from the stage, seven candidates tried to break through.

SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library sits on a stately, sun-dappled perch enveloped by green hills and gorgeous vistas. It is a magical place that evokes the fortieth president’s boundless optimism and feels a lot like the movie sets where he made his name. 

The knock against the Republican debate that took place here last night is that it was just that: make-believe. 

That was the subtext of former president Donald Trump—who enjoys the support of nearly 60 percent of GOP voters versus the 16 percent who back his closest rival, Florida governor Ron DeSantis—skipping the debate.

While Trump was thousands of miles away in Michigan, the other seven candidates seemed a little like people playing president—debating fentanyl and the southern border and China and mental health care—not running for the presidency.

Trump said as much Wednesday evening during a speech to auto workers near Detroit.

“All over television this speech, you know, we’re competing with the job candidates. They’re all running for a job,” Trump said, not bothering to name any of the Republicans trying to wrest the nomination from him. “Now they’re job candidates.” He added: “They’ll do anything. . . secretary of something, they even say vice president. Has anybody seen a vice president in that group? I don’t think so.”

Trump at Drake Enterprises, an auto parts manufacturer and supplier, in Clinton, Michigan, on September 27, 2023. (Matthew Hatcher / AFP via Getty Images)

The day after President Biden joined striking workers on the picket line, bullhorn in hand, Trump lashed out at the president’s record on labor: “Joe Biden claims to be the most pro-union president in history.” He continued: “His entire career has been an act of economic treason and union destruction. He’s destroyed unions, shipping millions of American jobs overseas while personally taking money from foreign nations hand over fist.”

That Trump’s would-be rivals were debating in the presidential library of the man who crushed the air traffic controllers’ 1981 strike and ushered in the era of supply-side economics—while Trump was vying for the support of auto workers in a key battleground state—only underscored that the real showdown was happening elsewhere. 

“This is a sideshow,” California’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, said Wednesday about the debate. (Apparently, it wasn’t that much of a sideshow. Newsom made time to swing by the Reagan Library for an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, who will be moderating a debate between Newsom and DeSantis in November.)

But despite all this—despite Trump having apparently locked up his party’s nomination, despite Biden apparently having locked up his party’s nomination—roughly 60 percent of Americans do not want a 2020 rematch; 67 percent of Democratic or Democratic-leaning voters do not want to see Biden on the ballot; nearly 75 percent of voters worry about the president’s mental state; and 65 percent feel “exhausted” when they think of politics. 

Voters of all political stripes, and I am one of them, dread watching the two old men—Biden is 80; Trump, 77—battle it out. They dread the polarization, the ugliness, the stale ideas, the stale language. They want to know how America transcends this impasse. 

They are waiting, hoping—praying—that someone catches fire, charts a new vision. 

Nobody on the debate stage achieved what Reagan did when he said: “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Nobody sounded like a visionary. It seems unlikely that, in forty years, future wannabe presidents will face off in a library dedicated to any of the people onstage. 

So what stuck out? A few things.

Vivek Ramaswamy in the spin room after the debate. (Gilbert Flores/Variety via Getty Images)

A Kinder, Gentler Vivek

Before the debate, we spoke to someone close to the Ramaswamy campaign who assured us we’d see a “different” Vivek tonight. What did he mean by different? “Well, a bit less of an asshole.”

“I’m the new guy here, and so I know I have to earn your trust,” a kinder, gentler version of Ramaswamy insisted tonight. “What do you see? You see a young man who’s in a bit of a hurry? Maybe a little ambitious. . . a bit of a know-it-all, it seems, at times? I’m here to tell you, no, I don’t know it all. I will listen. I will have the best people, the best and brightest in this country, whatever age they are, advising me.”

Invoking Reagan, Ramaswamy added: “The divide is not between the Republicans on the stage at the Reagan Library. I want to say these are good people on this stage.”

If we got a fighter in the first debate, last night we got more of the “happy warrior” that Reagan so ably embodied. But if Ramaswamy tried to be Reaganesque in terms of style, he was entirely unlike the Gipper when it came to his economic views.

“I don’t have a lot of patience for the union bosses,” Ramaswamy said, referring to the UAW. “But I have a lot of sympathy for the workers.”

He then pivoted to an attack on Jack Welch, the famed CEO of General Electric and champion of Reaganomics. “My father stared down layoffs at GE under Jack Welch,” Ramaswamy said. He added that his mother had to work overtime in nursing homes in southwest Ohio “to make ends meet and pay off our home loan.”

Later, sounding more like a traditional Republican, Ramaswamy said: “I understand that hardship is not a choice. Victimhood is a choice, and we choose to be victorious.”

It was, to be fair to Ramaswamy and all the other Republicans onstage, an awkward situation—standing in a shrine to free markets while trying to appeal to the working-class voters who tend to favor Trump and clamoring for the breakout moment they all desperately need. 

Haley Draws Blood

“Honestly, every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber.” 

If there was a line of the night, that might have been it, and it was delivered by Nikki Haley to Ramaswamy in an exchange about whether the Chinese-owned social media platform TikTok should be banned. Ramaswamy defended being on the platform (“I have a radical idea for the Republican Party: we need to win elections. Part of how we win elections is reaching the next generation of young Americans where they are.”) Haley called bullshit: “TikTok is one of the most dangerous social media assets that we can have.” 

Our favorite part of this campaign so far is the Haley-Ramaswamy rivalry. We’d love a roadshow. Or a reality show.

Hat tip to Carlos Lozada, longtime book critic for The Washington Post and now The New York Times, for spotting this delicious tidbit: Haley blurbed Ramaswamy’s 2021 book, Woke, Inc., praising him for “speak[ing] the truth without fear.” Perfect.

Chris Christie—Still Shadowboxing

The former New Jersey governor’s entire campaign is about prosecuting the former president. But it’s hard to do that—and win over Trump’s voters. Which may be why he’s polling at just shy of 3 percent. 

Anyway, tonight, in the absence of boxing Trump, he tried shadowboxing him.

“I know you’re watching,” Christie said, looking into the camera and apparently speaking directly to Trump (who was busy giving his speech at the time). “You’re not here tonight because you’re afraid of being on the stage and defending your record. . . you’re ducking these things,” Christie said. “You keep doing that, no one here’s going to call you Donald Trump anymore. We’re going to call you Donald Duck.” 

The line, clearly carefully rehearsed, dropped like a lead balloon even in the press room—not exactly a group of people who are inclined toward the former president.

Cringe from Mike Pence

This was a cringe-y night, but we have to give the award for the most skin-crawling line to former vice president Mike Pence who, in an attempted riposte to Chris Christie, who tried to knock Biden for “sleeping with a teacher,” said: “I’ve been sleeping with a teacher for 38 years. . . full disclosure”—before pivoting to “the aged and the unborn.” (Recall that this is a man who calls his wife “Mother.”)

Mr. Pence faces a nearly impossible task: distancing himself from Trump while not distancing himself too much while also playing the part of social conservative in a country (if not a party) that seems much less taken with social conservatives these days. All of this explains why he’s polling at just below 5 percent. And he’s the former vice president. 

DeSantis Gets Better 

Having failed to deliver on sky-high expectations for his campaign, Ron DeSantis has been the most disappointing candidate of the primary so far. The Florida governor’s showing last night was certainly an improvement on his bloodless and stilted appearance in the first debate.

For one thing, he was more self-assured. Instead of resorting to the verbal pyrotechnics of the Christie campaign, DeSantis said simply of Trump: “He should be on this stage tonight. He owes it to you to defend his record,” and accusing the former president of being “missing in action.” 

But DeSantis needed more than a modest improvement on his last outing if he was to reclaim his status as the only viable alternative to Trump. (And he still needs to do something about that awkward smile.) 

A Trump supporter outside the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Did Last Night’s Slugfest Change Anything?

“The question is, what did they do to cut into Donald Trump’s lead?” asked Republican pollster and former Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway in an interview with The Free Press after the debate. “He’s like a hologram hovering over the whole place, and he doesn’t even need to be here. . . . I think they’re all trying to make a moment. They’re trying to be funny. Reach for the rafters, get a big headline. But that’s not the way you overtake a 40-point lead.” 

Senior Trump adviser Chris LaCivita tweeted, predictably enough, “Tonight’s GOP debate was as boring and inconsequential as the first debate, and nothing that was said will change the dynamics of the primary contest being dominated by President Trump.”

All of that may be true—after the two-hour debate ended, there did not appear to be much consensus about any of the candidates onstage soaring ahead of the pack. But that doesn’t do anything to mitigate the fear and anger of countless Americans who want to know how their country moves forward. Those Americans who have watched opiates and automation and economic stratification and cultural upheaval and fears of election tampering and disinformation (and disinformation about the disinformation) tear apart the body politic and want to know if, how, and when America can return to some semblance of normalcy.

In a moment that seemed to capture that yearning—after a moderator asked the debaters who among them should be “voted off the island” to avoid another Trump administration—DeSantis replied: “I’ll decline to do that, with all due respect. I mean, we’re here—we are happy to debate. I think that is disrespectful to my fellow competitors. Let’s talk about the future of the country.”

Stay tuned: We’ll have an episode of Honestly up later today, which we recorded in the spin room after the debate and at the Trump rally in Michigan.

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