Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth, and Vivek Ramaswamy’s plan for the second Republican presidential primary debate was to pivot from being a jerk to being Mr. Nice Guy. And yeah, that plan lasted about as long as most Mike Tyson fights.
“These are good people on this stage,” Ramaswamy said early on in the debate. It was a stark contrast to the first primary debate, when he declared, “I’m the only person on this stage who isn’t bought and paid for.”
This move took a lot of chutzpah. Vivek used the first debate to make a splash and gain notoriety in the attention economy—at his opponents’ expense. That strategy clearly worked, but polling and focus groups must have shown that he also came across as annoying. So—just like a politician who pivots to the center for the general election—the next step was to show a kinder, gentler Ramaswamy.
He telegraphed this effort pretty blatantly. “Let me level with all of you. I’m the new guy here, and so I know I have to earn your trust,’ Ramaswamy said at one point. “What do you see? You see a young man who’s in a bit of a hurry, maybe a little ambitious, bit of a know-it-all it seems, at times. I’m here to tell you I don’t know it all. I will listen.”
The seasoned politicians on stage must have heard it more like this: Hey guys, I know that you have spent decades toiling in these fields, and I know I attacked you all last time. But the good news is that once I get to be president, I’ll let you be my advisers!
Ramaswamy’s attempt to patch things up didn’t go over so well, and it wasn’t long before Sen. Tim Scott called him out for it and turned the tables. “We think about the fact that Vivek said we are all good people, and I appreciate that; because at the last debate, he said we were all bought and paid for,” Scott reminded the audience.
“You know,” Scott continued, “I can’t imagine how you could say that [the part about being bought and paid for] knowing that you were just in business with the Chinese Communist Party and the same people that funded Hunter Biden millions of dollars were partners of yours as well.”
“That’s nonsense,” Ramaswamy said.
“It’s not nonsense,” Scott replied.
“These are good people who are tainted by a broken system, and it’s not the fault of anybody who’s in politics,” Ramaswamy said, presumably talking about his opponents on stage.
Then, something interesting happened. Vivek, the normally slick-talking salesman who sported hair that might be described as Lyle Lovett-esque, appeared—possibly for the first time in his life—tongue-tied and flummoxed.
“Thank you for speaking while I’m interrupting,” he said.
Truer words were never spoken.
After some back and forth and crosstalk, Ramaswamy decided to conveniently look for an exit ramp by invoking the hero whose presidential library hosted the debate.
“In honor of Ronald Reagan, if I may (Ramaswamy likes to say ‘if I may’), and… from one admirer of Ronald Reagan to another… we cannot sit here and violate Reagan’s 11th commandment.” [Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican].
For a guy whose first move in the first debate was to attack the motives of every Republican on stage, that was rich.
Ramaswamy was briefly saved by the bell, but the hits kept on coming. The moderator tried to change the subject to Dreamers and go to former Vice President Mike Pence. But he opened by saying, “I’m glad Vivek pulled out of his business deal in 2018 in China. That must have been about the time you decided to start voting in presidential elections. So, nice to have you participate in elections.”
When Mike Pence is dunking on you, you’re in trouble.
But hitting Ramaswamy on China was a theme of the night, and it was Nikki Haley who, once again, snuck in the most vicious shot of the night, in regards to Ramaswamy’s flip-flopping over the Chinese-owned TikTok.
As you might recall, Ramaswamy was originally anti-TikTok, calling it “digital fentanyl,” before posting a video where he dances with influencer Jake Paul. “TikTok is one of the most dangerous social media assets that we can have,” Haley said. “And honestly, every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say.”
It was a line that, frankly, described the entire debate, but it resonated because it was honest and (unlike Mike Pence’s cringeworthy jokes about sleeping with a teacher or Chris Christie’s “Donald Duck” line) likely spontaneous.
And Haley kept going. “They hear we’ve got a TikTok situation. What they’re doing is, 150 million people are on TikTok. That means they can get your contacts, they can get your financial information, they can get your emails. They can get your text messages. They can get all of these things.”
“You were in business with the Chinese,” she continued. “We can’t trust you.”
Ramaswamy responded by criticizing his opponents for “hurling insults.” He also, once again, invoked Reagan’s 11th commandment. It felt like the last refuge of a scoundrel.
In the first debate, Ramaswamy came looking for a fight. He found it, but he gave as good as he got. This time around, he thought he could use his charm and eloquence to calm things down. But his rivals simply refused to cooperate with his plan. As a result, he was forced to play defense a lot, and he wound up getting a bloody lip from Haley.
So much for killing them with kindness.