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To hear his rivals tell it, he’s a neophyte charlatan unfit for the job he’s seeking. A huckster with zero lines of his resume that are relevant to the job he’s now pursuing. A gate-crashing fool who might be able to string together a few zingers, but hardly qualified to open the nuclear football with wisdom or shut down a stock market with credibility. A danger to the post-World War 2 world order, someone who would surrender to Moscow and fling almost a century of foreign-policy convention into a woodchipper, a chump who just doesn’t get it. Or maybe worse of all, the second coming of the most derided figure on the American political right: Barack Obama.
Eight years ago, that should have been the argument against Donald Trump, a norm-breaking cautionary flag against amateurism. The Republican Party couldn’t figure out how to disqualify a candidate who, by traditional benchmarks, was as unqualified as they’d seen since Ike. This week, on a debate stage in Milwaukee, it was the indictment against Vivek Ramaswamy. The 38-year-old tech bro who was the surprising bullseye of the first Republican presidential debate and, unexpectedly, a source of unmitigated contempt from some of his fellow candidates.
Maybe it was Ramaswamy’s consistent and confounding defense of All Things Trump. Maybe it was his smooth talk and culture-war acumen. Maybe it was just the fact that Ramaswamy frankly does not care how things were done before and might just have enough self-made money to go the distance.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie snarled that he had “had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT,” an A.I. battery. He then dismissed Ramaswamy as someone on the same level as a political figure universally loathed in the GOP. “The last person in one of these debates… who stood in the middle of the stage and said, ‘What is a skinny guy with an odd last name doing up here?’ was Barack Obama. And I am afraid we are dealing with the same type of amateur standing on the stage tonight,” Christie said.
Sniped former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley: “You have no foreign policy experience, and it shows.”
And, in a sign that former Vice President Mike Pence understands his esteem with those on Team MAGA is low, he took a jab at Ramaswamy and the very characteristic that helped originally elevate Trump in the minds of so many in the GOP base.
“Now it’s not the time for on-the-job training,” retorted Pence. “We don’t need to bring in a rookie. We don’t need to bring in people with no experience.”
Attacks during debates are the norm but this was different. Ramaswamy’s competitors really don’t like him. Not even a little.
But that probably wasn’t viewed as a bad thing to Ramaswamy, who isn’t interested in being one of those candidates who, despite being a rival, folks just like. He—and it’s always a he to this point—is a popular figure backstage, someone everyone seeks out to just greet and to see what’s good. Most folks understood that former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick wasn’t a real threat in 2020, but they all wanted to check in with him because he is among the sharpest minds in the Democratic Party on civil rights. Four years earlier, everyone liked to hear the musings of Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina; he always had a story about something that could elicit a low-stakes giggle in the wings of a cattle call. And four years before that, no one would accuse former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty of showboating. There is a value in being a decent human being, even if that all-too-rare quality seldom ends in political success.
Ramaswamy? Well, no one is credibly thinking this guy is going to win Mr. Congeniality. His rivals have skipped right past the open-palm slap and moved right to the sucker punch. He has already gotten under the skin of his competitors in a way that invokes John Kerry’s contempt of Howard Dean in 2004 or George H.W. Bush’s ire with Pat Buchanan in 1992. Sometimes, there’s just one kid in the class who needs to be thwacked for good measure.
It’s hard to argue that Ramaswamy, who has never before run for anything at this level, is a real factor in this race. As much as he tried to channel Obama on the debate stage, the charisma just isn’t there. Yet.
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And that yet is why so many of Ramaswamy’s rivals decided it was worth their time to slag him Wednesday night. They all remember 2016, and how pretending Trump wasn’t a factor allowed him to coast for long enough to establish himself as a credible and bemusing enough figure to start a march to the nomination and then to the White House. Lesson learned, Ramaswamy’s rivals were not going to make that mistake again.
Of course, the GOP race is still Trump’s to lose. He’s polling at least 30 points ahead of his closest rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. But DeSantis has slogged through one of the worst stretches any White House hopeful has seen in recent memory.
Still, the fact that Ramaswamy merited any oppo prep says a lot about the field. In normal times, he would not be a factor, an interloper with zero experience who should not matter. But the reboot of politics in the last 20 years has made his candidacy possible. Mike Bloomberg rode his money to become the mayor of the nation’s largest city and tried to steer his way to the White House the same way. Trump leveraged celebrity and perceived wealth to the White House. Ramaswamy, an investing juggernaut in his own telling, thinks he could follow that mold to heave himself into the Oval Office.
As implausible as it sounds, Ramaswamy mightn’t be completely delusional. The GOP has long fetishized wealth, leaving it as a proxy for actual talent. Actual experience is secondary in both parties. And America is still reeling from four years of Trump in the White House. If the United States could weather that hurricane, who’s to say it isn’t willing to experiment with a knock-off Trump, one who doesn’t have four indictments hanging over him?
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Write to Philip Elliott at firstname.lastname@example.org.