Republican presidential candidates Vivek Ramaswamy and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley face off at the first debate of the GOP primary season. (Win McNamee via Getty Images)

Weekend Listening: The First GOP Debate and the Elephant Not in the Room

A Free Press roundtable on who won—and lost—the Republican ruckus.

On Wednesday night, Fox News and the streaming platform Rumble hosted the first Republican presidential debate with the eight GOP hopefuls who made the cut: North Dakota governor Doug Burgum, former governor of Arkansas Asa Hutchinson, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, former governor of South Carolina Nikki Haley, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, former vice president Mike Pence, biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. 

Missing from the stage was Donald Trump, who refused to attend the debate. Instead, he sat down with Tucker Carlson—a move that allowed him to flip the bird to the RNC and allowed Tucker to do the same to Fox, who fired him a few months ago. Trump’s interview with Tucker aired exclusively on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, and more than 74 million people tuned in.

Here at The Free Press, we love a good debate night, and we were up until the wee hours discussing it all. So today on Honestly, TFP reporter Olivia Reingold, TFP senior editor Peter Savodnik, and Newsweek’s opinion editor Batya Ungar-Sargon are here to discuss: who emerged on top? Who fell by the wayside? And did the elephant not in the room still somehow manage to dominate the night?

Click here to listen to our discussion or read an edited transcript below. And join us in the comments. —BW

And the winner is. . . 

Bari: With Trump missing from the debate stage, there was only really one reason to tune in, and that was to see if there’s actually a viable candidate in this race that is not Trump. Polling has consistently shown that people are desperate for an alternative to another Trump v. Biden face-off in 2024. And I wonder, did last night give us a clear contender? 

Batya: The two competing answers we got at our debate at Newsweek were that the winner of the GOP debate was Donald Trump, and the other one was the winner was Joe Biden. So clearly, we felt that no one really stood out. There were some moments that really defined the evening. One of them was the foreign policy debate between Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy, which was sort of the old GOP versus the new Trump GOP going at it. At that moment, Vivek’s credibility really came into question in a way that surprised me. I did find myself admiring the way in which Nikki took the event to task, despite the fact that I agreed with what Vivek was saying. Vivek had the right lines, but Haley’s deportment and her credibility and her experience, despite the fact I don’t agree with what she’s done with it, really came through for me. 

Peter: I think it’s obvious that Vivek had the best night. He had the best lines. He had the most energy and the most momentum. The problem is that he’s trying to beat Trump. Ultimately, the question for him, which no one asked, is if you are such a fervent supporter of Trump, why are you running? I think he did great last night, but I don’t see how that actually wins him the nomination. 

Olivia: I think this was the first time that a lot of people really heard of this guy [Vivek] or started taking him seriously. I think his ascent can be explained by his authenticity or perceived authenticity. It’s very hard to be authentic on a debate stage. You saw a lot of other candidates using pretty canned or rehearsed lines, but I got the sense that often Vivek was improvising and he sometimes took positions that the crowd was not happy with, but he still maintained his position. I think that’s what people admire about him: they feel like they’re getting someone who’s actually honest about where he stands. He’s not trying to water things down. 

Bari: And how are voters responding to him? 

Olivia: What I heard from a lot of voters is that they see Trump as someone who talks about everything that’s wrong about America, but what they see in Vivek is someone who says what could be right about America. However, I do think Vivek’s optimism was tarnished a bit by some of his pretty ugly and aggressive hits on the debate stage.

Nikki Haley stands her ground: 

Bari: I think Nikki Haley also emerged as a clear contender. From the very start of the night, she came out swinging. She started by attacking her own party for blowing up the debt. Here’s what she said: “The fact is that no one is telling the American people the truth. The truth is that Biden didn’t do this to us. Our Republicans did this to us, too. Donald Trump added $8 trillion to our debt. Our kids are never going to forgive us for this. Look at the 2024 budget: Republicans asked for $7.4 billion in earmarks. Democrats asked for $2.8 billion. So you tell me, who are the big spenders? I think it’s time for an accountant in the White House.” Batya, what did you think of her strategy?

Batya: It was a way of talking about the economy that set her apart, right? It was a gambit to be like, “Let’s all take responsibility. Both sides are at fault for inflation.” I think she really is a throwback to the pre-Trump Republican Party not just on foreign policy but on economic policy as well. I think that Nikki Haley also showed the Republican Party the way forward on abortion, which is a very tricky issue. Haley said: “Let’s find consensus. Can’t we all agree that we should ban late-term abortions? Can’t we all agree that we should encourage adoptions? Can’t we all agree that doctors and nurses who don’t believe in abortion shouldn’t have to perform them? Can’t we all agree that contraception should be available? And can’t we all agree that we are not going to put a woman in jail or give her the death penalty if she gets an abortion?” Now, that was a very courageous thing for a pro-life candidate to say, but finding that consensus is the only way to get out of this morass. I don’t know how it felt in the room, but at least watching from home, it seemed like that really landed with the audience. I know just from the working-class people I spoke to, they really do agree. 

Bari: Nikki also clearly came ready to deploy this one particular line by Margaret Thatcher. While Vivek and Christie were sort of squabbling back and forth, she decides to step in and says: “If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman,” and the crowd cheered. Is the GOP embracing the #TheFutureIsFemale and #GirlBoss? 

Peter: Last night, Haley showed herself as someone who is about getting things done. When Haley confronted Pence about the Senate calculus, that was her confronting him about playing from an old playbook. That was her calling him out for being stuck in the ’80s. And that’s why the Thatcher quote worked so well. It’s her saying, “We’re all more or less in agreement here that abortion is lamentable, but what can we actually get done?” If you look at what happened in Kansas, if you look at the debates going on in her own state or in other red bastions, you can see that people are tired of the old original culture war that stretches back to the early ’70s. So I think she very deftly tapped into that, just like with the line attacking the GOP over the debt in the very beginning. It was her way of attacking the swamp without identifying it as the swamp. I thought she was just very smart in an almost coded way. 

Bari: I think that the phrase has become overused, but it felt like she was putting herself forward as the “commonsensical candidate.” 

Peter: Yeah, that’s right. 

The elephant not in the room:

Bari: At about the hour mark of the debate, Brett Baier said he wanted to take a moment to address the elephant not in the room. And of course, that was Donald Trump. The candidates proceeded to spend 15 minutes going back and forth about the former president. Chris Christie got an audience full of boos after saying that we need to stop normalizing this type of conduct. Vivek contested Christie by declaring that Trump is the greatest president of the twenty-first century. Looking at where the Republican voter base currently is, which of these two have the correct strategy? 

Peter: If Trump’s the greatest president of the twenty-first century, then why would we vote for anyone besides him? Again, Haley was the only one who actually got it right when she said no one wants a rematch between Biden and Trump next year. A large majority of Americans do not want a rematch of 2020. I also think Chris Christie made a very compelling argument. He was saying something that would travel very well in a general election, but it’s going to sink his campaign now. He’s targeted all these MAGA voters whom he needs if he wants to win the nomination. So politically, he’s unviable. However, Haley, in a smart, deft way, was able to tap into what people are thinking and feeling. 

Batya: I thought it was great TV. I thought they had to ask that question, but I think the answer—it’s sort of unanswerable because Trump’s accomplishments were so vast on behalf of the working class. To ask people to not vote for a man who immeasurably improved their lives, who made this country feel like it cared about them for the first time in generations, who put money in their bank accounts, and for the first time made the American dream feel like something they could start dreaming about again—to ask them not to vote for him is not just ridiculous. None of those people onstage are able to quite understand the complexity. These people are not voting for Trump because they think he’s moral. They’re voting for him because it is undeniable what he accomplished and because he represented their future. 

Pence invokes Jesus; DeSantis flounders:

Bari: Talking about Trump gave Pence his big opportunity to get on the soapbox, and Christie and Scott and Haley all applauded him for his refusal to buckle under the pressure of Trump on January 6. And Pence leaned hard into this moment. He said he took an oath to the Constitution and his Heavenly Father and said, “Everyone on this stage needs to make it clear whether they’ll do the same.” Now, taking a step back—this is the riddle of Mike Pence. You look at him: he was the governor of Indiana. He was vice president of the United States. He’s very hardcore on every conservative issue. And yet he’s polling at like four percent. So, is the problem that Mike Pence is just so uncharismatic, or is there something about his brand of conservatism that’s just not relevant anymore? 

Batya: The GOP base is the working class, and the working class is not hardcore. They are extremely tolerant. They’re conservative by and large on social issues, much more so than Democrats, but they are deeply, deeply tolerant people. And the class issue unites them much more than a political identity. And, you know, this is something that I think is very hard for people to understand: working-class conservatives hate the Republican Party. They hate, hate, hate the Republican Party. And Mike Pence really represents that thing that they hate. And so I don’t think it’s surprising at all. I do think what’s interesting is that we’ve gotten 45 minutes in and have not even mentioned Ron DeSantis—

Bari: Yes, let’s get to DeSantis! The biggest loser to me on that stage was Ron DeSantis. Six months ago, we were told by everyone that the Florida governor was the man to beat. He was hailed as the future of the Republican Party. He raised $20 million in the first six weeks of his campaign. He was definitely the favorite among the donor class who were looking for an alternative to Trump. He was the strong horse. Now, last night he tried to Trumpify himself a few times. He said things like, “Anthony [Fauci], you’re fired.” He blamed the corporate media for the decline of America. He called out George Soros and liberal DAs, saying the inmates are running our asylums. I’m sure he rehearsed all of those lines, but none of them stuck. I’m not going to remember any of them 24 hours from now. A lot of people are saying it’s lights out for Ron DeSantis. He’s done. What do you think? What happened to Ronnie D? And any chance of him making a comeback? 

Peter: I don’t think so, because, look, the whole DeSantis play from the very beginning has been one word, which is competence. The whole campaign is premised on the assumption that the Republican base cares deeply about the Trump agenda. And I think that’s wrong. I think what they really care about is they want the proverbial bull in a china shop. They want the person who’s going to muck everything up. That’s what they love about Vivek. That’s what they responded to last night. I think that’s why Nikki Haley’s line about a woman getting the job done resonated so well with voters. It’s argumentative, it’s brash, and DeSantis lacks all of that.

Batya: I disagree with Peter. I think that Ron DeSantis misunderstood the Trump voter in exactly the same way that the liberal media does. He assumed, like the liberal media does, that people voted for Trump because they were anti-gay or suspicious of black people. The truth is the exact opposite: the Trump voter is very pro-gay, like Trump. They’re also not suspicious of black people. There’s a lot of unity around that. They’re very eager to show that they are tolerant and have moved on from that stereotype about Republicans. So to me, the thing that draws Trump’s voters is the economic policy that’s geared towards the working class. The reason Ron DeSantis will not be able to recover is because he doesn’t agree with Trump about creating an economy that does that. There is a huge divide in the GOP between what the donor class wants, which is the fight against wokeness, and what the voter base wants, which is an economy that works for the hardest-working Americans. 

Trump’s very. . . Trumpy. . . interview on Tucker:

Bari: In my opinion, Tucker’s interview with Trump didn’t feel like a presidential conversation. They were chatting about things like Jeffrey Epstein, Hillary Clinton, and Kamala Harris, but Trump barely dinged DeSantis. He didn’t mention Vivek. Do you think this is a winning strategy? Can he just sail his way to the nomination and not engage with these debates at all? 

Olivia: I think not. In retrospect, I don’t think it was advantageous for him to not attend last night’s debate because without him being there, they didn’t have to differentiate themselves from him. I think if he were in the room, it would have been really uncomfortable for them to challenge or contradict him. The interview with Tucker surprised me because it had the cadence of someone who is not really in campaign mode. 

Bari: I think because he is so far ahead in the polls, he just feels he’s above the other candidates. Trump is ignoring standard etiquette and standard politics, but again, maybe that’s just a smart strategy. Peter, what do you think? 

Peter: I think that’s obviously the strategy sitting on a 55 percent lead. That’s the piece of the GOP base that he controls, or at least is in his camp right now. However, I don’t see that working long-term or over the next five, six months in the lead-up to the first primary in South Carolina. What Trump seems to be forgetting is his own lesson of 2016, which is you have to fight for the nomination. While all the other candidates back in 2015 were kind of riding on years of experience, political careers, and their various successes or elections, Trump was actually making a case in his own kind of blustering, bombastic way for a totally different politics. And it was a fight. It really resonates with voters. I think what happens is that people will begin to look at the candidates like Vivek and think maybe he is a better alternative. The question is, can someone who’s more reasonable or with a broader and more ecumenical appeal like a Haley become viable? 

Bari: I hate myself for feeling this way, but as I was watching the Trump-Tucker interview, I felt that it was more objectively entertaining than what was happening on the debate stage in Milwaukee. Others would disagree. Do people still have the appetite for what Trump is offering? 

Batya: I think Trump was probably hoping it would dominate the headlines. Yet the headlines really were very much about the debate. Also, Trump is very rarely wrong about where the populist energy is flowing, so him praising Vivek on Truth Social this morning signals to me that he really does not see him as a threat at all. Maybe they’ve spoken about VP or something, but if he was worried about him after last night, I don’t think he would have been saying nice things about him on Truth Social. There were a few moments during the Tucker interview where we really saw a different side of Trump that I think doesn’t come out a lot because he’s often in fight mode. At one point, Trump said, “You have great people in the Democratic Party. You have great people that are Democrats. Most of the people in our country are fantastic. I’m representing everybody, not just Republicans or conservatives. I’m the president of everybody.” And to me, that was the Trump that we could have had if the other side did not declare war on him from the minute he got into office and just decided he was an illegitimate president, despite the fact that he won that first election in 2016 fairly. So I think there was a little bit of pathos for me watching it in that sense. 

Bari: Let’s assume it’s Trump v. Biden in 2024. Who’s your money on? 

Olivia: I think it’s going to be Trump simply because that really makes it a referendum on Biden. I just don’t think people are pleased enough with his performance to reelect him. 

Peter: It’s Trump because Covid is over. That was what undid him in 2020. 

Batya: I don’t like to prognosticate because I am always wrong, but I have to say I really, really don’t know. I am excited to find out. I thought the debate last night was really interesting, and I think this is just a really interesting election cycle in terms of thinking about the future of our nation and in terms of how we see ourselves as Americans and what our priorities are. So I’m looking forward to it, whichever way it turns out. 

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