On the morning of the second Republican primary debate, Donald Trump’s social media account posted a Gary Varvel cartoon featuring a giant shadow of Trump’s head cast over a stage of overwhelmed rivals. It was a fitting depiction of the drama to follow.
The problem with Wednesday night’s debate is that assessing performances became nearly impossible as the occasion frequently drowned in a cacophony of voices ramming into each other as rules crashed to the floor of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum.
The advancing calendar has increased pressure on every candidate, and the moderators were unable to control the adrenaline of the participants. The structure was no help. The framework obviously called for bouncing starkly from issue to issue with no room for topics to breathe and develop. Moderator instructions clearly called for them to interrupt answers deemed less than responsive, which was nearly as annoying as the candidates stepping all over each other.
The next debate is Nov. 8 in Miami. That’s six weeks to get some clarity: Let viewers decide when candidates are dodging questions or angling toward favored index card lines. Once a question is asked, moderators should shut up until the timing bell rings, when it is time to ask the next question or curtail an overlong answer.
Endless answers and uninvited speechifying were the order of the night, suppressing what might have otherwise been a valuable opportunity to grade this stage filled with candidates desperate to eat into Trump’s lead. I’m a big fan of Fox News’ Dana Perino, so I desperately want to believe she did not craft the stunningly stupid idea of wrapping up the evening by asking everyone to write down the name of a candidate who should be “voted off the island.”
In the rare moments where coherent questions were coherently answered, a few storylines punched through:
Ron DeSantis wanted to reclaim his status as prime Trump rival, and he may have taken steps in that direction. Vivek Ramaswamy and Nikki Haley have made poll inroads, but the sitting Florida governor had the unique chance to chronicle an ongoing record of executive conservative success, capping off one answer with the pronouncement that “in our state, the Democratic party lies in ruins.”
Ramaswamy and Haley acquitted themselves with relative success, but someone as young as he is needs to avoid looking snotty toward the rest of the field, even when he’s making a good point, as when he opposed birthright citizenship while suggesting he was the only one onstage who had read the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which outlines the issue.
As for Haley, she needs to rein in her condescending annoyance with Ramaswamy’s lack of firsthand foreign policy experience. Not that she has a bad point, but the truth is that the current GOP frontrunner entered the presidency in 2017 with zero foreign policy experience, while the current president has plenty.
Tim Scott was Tim Scott, meaning his answers were good and his narratives inspiring, especially his refusal as a Black person to join the modern chorus slamming America as systemically racist. But with a dominant Trump and other distinctive personalities ahead of him in the polls, it’s hard to see a path forward.
Mike Pence was Mike Pence, with his straight-from-central-casting appearance of what a president looks like. And with four years at a heartbeat’s distance from that job, he has to be wondering why so few are interested in him ascending to it. That’s not likely to change as he wrestles with the daily dilemma of speaking well of the administration he so ably served while arguing that Trump’s reelection is to be avoided at all costs.
Chris Christie continues to embarrass himself, even without the lame “Donald Duck” barb at Trump for skipping debates. His entire shtick is blasting Trump for various things while ostensibly trying to win the nomination of a party that clearly still values him.
The only path for any of these eager competitors is to identify with voters’ broad appreciation for Trump while suggesting that they are more electable, or more disciplined, or under far fewer indictments. And even that may not work.
The second debate surely did not work. The third occasion can be better with stronger moderators and an ear toward letting topics grow and flow. When the participants were just getting warmed up with interesting exchanges about Ukraine, Perino screeched the proceedings to a halt to ask Doug Burgum about farming.
It’s tempting to suggest that perhaps Christie and Pence should join Burgum in the home viewing audience for the next debate, but there is a small but loud corner of the GOP that actively dislikes Trump, and Christie gives it voice. And if Trump decides to attend the next debate, a battle of Jan. 6 reminiscences with Pence might draw interest — presuming the moderators let them finish sentences.
Debates are rarely substantive occasions that make important news. They are at best worthy examples of political theater. In this case, it was a relief to see the curtain come down.
Mark Davis hosts a morning radio show in Dallas-Fort Worth on 660-AM and at 660amtheanswer.com. Follow him on Twitter: @markdavis.
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