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Substance in a Trump Era Debate!?
Haley and DeSantis both show their seriousness in an era awash in Republican non-seriousness.
Hello everyone! Welcome to the Self-Evident newsletter. That’s right, after hearing some input from readers telling me they miss my more traditional newslettery ruminations, I’ve decided to readjust a few things. The Self-Evident section of the Freemen News-Letter will be back at my sole discretion and will run weekly, usually on Friday. As for the political theory-oriented section for contributors, it has been renamed Res Publica and will continue as it has been since we launched the Freemen News-Letter. But without any further ado, let’s dig into some post-debate analysis.
Most post-debate commentary tends to focus on the question of who “won” the debate. But given that contemporary political debates are far from having a Lincoln-Douglas debate format, the question of winning a debate has a lot more to do with viral moments, sound bytes, and post-debate spin than necessarily who successfully defended their political positions and who didn’t.
To that end, I’d say that nobody won Wednesday’s debate but that Nikki Haley won the moment (more on that later). What usually is very clear, however, is who lost a debate.
Vivek Ramaswamy has pulled off a miracle by becoming the least-liked candidate in a race that includes Donald Trump. He never really had a good response for the purpose of his candidacy (if Trump is the greatest President in history, why run against him?), and he’s showcased himself as that kid in the front row of Political Science 101 whose homework consists of skimming the chapter in the opening minutes of class but then insisting on offering a comment on every point of the lecture, a lazy, ill-informed, bumper sticker answer.
And this debate has sealed his fate as the ugly, back-biting, smug, a-hole also-ran, especially thanks to his decision to take a swipe at Nikki Haley involving her daughter (a universally condemned and disliked moment) and to call Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a Jewish politician leading the defense of his country against an invasion from an aggressive neighbor, a Nazi (a shocking echo of the pro-Hamas rhetoric Vivek claims to want to shutdown, where Hamas actions are defended by accusing Israel of being an apartheid state).
I’ve frankly had enough of this guy, and all evidence points to my sentiments being shared by pretty much everybody but online trolls and Sen. Mike Lee.
The other clear loser is Senator Tim Scott. I mean, his campaign has just been pretty rough to watch. And my personal estimation of him as a politician has gone down quite a bit.
Before he jumped in the race, I really, really liked Tim Scott. He has a very compelling story, and his political instincts are largely the kind I prefer to see in a Republican politician. But he has this halting, rambling way of speaking, as if he doesn’t always quite know where he’s going with a sentence after he’s started to say something. He comes off as lost in his thoughts but scripted at the same time. And he’s such a soft-spoken and thoughtful-looking guy, when he dithers into bumper sticker populist sound bytes, it comes off as jarring and forced.
Whether for these reasons or because he just doesn’t have a natural lane or constituency in the present political climate, Senator Scott has just not gained any traction, and I think it’s time to for him to move on. It is, frankly, now a question between DeSantis and Haley for the non-Trump consensus candidate, and we need the departure of Scott to help bring clarity to that question.
As for Chris Christie, bless his heart, he actually had a very, very good debate performance. It’s clear to see he is the most polished, seasoned, and accomplished debater on the stage. He actually answers the questions he’s given, and with each question, he takes a pause and then calmly and clearly offers a well-reasoned response. Much like Mike Pence before him, if Chris Christie weren’t a Republican pariah, he would be doing very well right now.
Tragically for him, his laudable debate performances over the course of the three we’ve had thus far are actually nails in the coffin rather than breakthrough moments of viability. If you’re doing this well but failing to gain any traction in the race, it means you’ve been dismissed by the voters.
Best Performance for DeSantis So Far
Ron DeSantis had a pretty good opening statement. While I didn’t much care for his attack on the “elites” for not caring about average Americans (I think the problem with progressivism is that they care too much, have a false vision of how to help people, and put too much belief in government’s ability to do so, not that they don’t care), I do think the second-half of his statemen was really good. So good, I’m going to put it right here in the newsletter:
“Now if you look where we are now, it’s a lot different than where we were in 2016 and Donald Trump’s a lot different guy than he was in 2016. He owes it to you to be on this stage and explain why he should get another chance. He should explain why he didn’t have Mexico pay for the border wall, he should explain why he racked up so much debt. He should explain why he didn’t drain the swamp and he said Republicans we’re going to get tired of winning. Well, we saw last night I’m sick of Republicans losing in Florida, I showed how it’s done, one year ago, here we won a historic victory including a massive landside right here in Miami-Dade County, that’s how we have to do it. So I promise you this as the nominee next November, I’ll get the job done and as president I will deliver for you.”
-Governor Ron DeSantis
If DeSantis had done a traditional campaign launch instead of his silliness on TwitterX and if this had been his lead message from the very get-go, I think his campaign trajectory would have gone very differently than it has.
The two questions I have, though, are whether this is a pivot or just a soundbite for the night and whether, if it is a pivot, it’s too little too late. I tend to think DeSantis will continue to be far less critical of Trump in front of Trump-friendly audiences and that his ship of viability has simply sailed. But I haven’t been shy lately in admitting I’ve grown very bearish on DeSantis and extremely bullish on Haley, so take my critiques of DeSantis with that heavy grain of salt.
But here’s the thing for me on DeSantis. Even with his really good opening statement, his more polished presentation, his engagement in offering answers and views on the issues, and his higher energy, I still think he's positioned himself extremely uncomfortably on foreign policy. The fact that he's closer to Vivek on some of these positions than he is to the other candidates is a very poor look. His Ukraine position, frankly, is a tremendous Achilles heel.
This Vivek isolationist wing of the GOP is small, unhinged, and uninformed. Yes, it’s very, very loud and angry, and has a tremendous presence online. But, as Kamala Harris discovered in her own bid for the White House, Twitter isn’t real. And DeSantis has made a serious strategic error in chasing after this section of voters, and assuming that online activism meaningfully represents the generic Republican voter.
Because here’s the rub: the logic behind being tough on China, tough on Hamas, pro-Israel, pro-Taiwan, but dismissive of Ukraine's struggle and conciliatory to Putin is just awkward and off-putting.
When you have Nikki Haley on one side offering a clear-eyed consistent message that recognizes an unholy alliance between Russia, China, and Iran that calls for a strong American response and clear global leadership and Vivek Ramaswamy standing on the other side and arguing that appeasement and detente are somehow strong, tough, brave positions to take (and calling a Jew a Nazi), it’s a terrible, terrible look for DeSantis to be closer to Vivek in his foreign policy stances than Haley.
I understand the argument for why DeSantis feels he needs to do this. This notion that the realities of the current Republican Party call for a candidate that can form a hybrid of Trumpism and Reaganism that appeals to the Trump-enamored while being palatable to the Trump-averse. In theory, it’s an appealing concept. But in practice, it comes off unavoidably as the pandering it is. It’s a contrived, unnatural position.
Vivek’s isolationism is unhinged, irresponsible, and detached from the facts of world politics and America’s position in the international order. It is anathema to the Reagan school of foreign policy. A Reaganite can’t split the difference with this kind of know-nothing reatreatism without appearing insincere and manufactured, and I think that’s exactly what keeps happening to DeSantis in these debates.
Haley Wins in Five-Inch Heels
As I mentioned at the onset, I shrink from saying anybody “won” this debate. Again, I just feel the way these debates are run and moderated is ill-conducive to determining a winner. (BTW, this debate was run and moderated far better than either of the FNC debates). But that doesn’t change the fact that Haley won the moment.
Currently, she is getting the most post-debate attention for once again dismantling Ramaswamy, and she clearly is the best-polished candidate on foreign policy, which is ideal given the political moment we're in.
Haley also has the best position on abortion, especially given what happened in the recent election. She's established herself as the adult in the room on the abortion issue. The pro-life movement needs to re-embrace abortion as a state issue, which is the argument it used for nearly half a century in pushing back against Roe. A female nominee pushing this kind of legislative maturity could go a long way in addressing the sudden weakness the GOP is experiencing on the abortion issue across the country.
But for some negatives, the attacks on DeSantis on fracking were overwrought. I don't think it necessarily hurts her, but whichever advisor is telling her to keep making it a thing is sending her barking up a tree that doesn't score her anything from voters. Haley plays better as a clear-minded leader who can respond to criticism with force and conviction, and she plays worse when she comes off as petty when utilizing cheap shots at the records of the other candidates.
I also didn’t much care for her “Trump was the right candidate at the right time” comment in her opening speech. For me, that was a trepidatious moment that might be hinting Haley is considering pivoting back toward making a play for the MAGA vote, a return to the campaign strategy that has so failed DeSantis. But I’ll try not to get too overwrought with these kinds of things. Especially since, I think, Haley has really positioned herself well now with three very strong debate performances.
As I've surveyed the headlines, analysis, and voter instincts in the days following the debate, what I'm seeing is that Haley won the battle for headlines with her responses to Vivek, she’s winning the respect, support, and consideration of conservative pundits, Republican donors, and party operatives with her clear command of foreign policy compared to the other candidates, and a combination of her response to Vivek bringing up her daughter and her polished and confident presentation is leading to even more reassessment and reconsideration by the voters.
While I think DeSantis did good enough to maintain his current levels of support, and I do think he may have managed to end his downward trajectory last night, especially with his (finally, finally) increased willingness to directly challenge Trump. But I think Haley keeps the momentum.
I think December's debate ends up being a head-to-head between a DeSantis in third place with around 12-15% support in the early states and Haley creeping past 20% and looking to break away. And I’d like to see Vivek, Scott, and Christie either fail to qualify for the debate or drop out of the race. At this point, they’ve become distractions to the true contest. The consensus non-Trump candidate is going to be either Ron DeSantis or Nikki Haley.
I have just been as pleased as can be with the quality of content we’ve been able to amass in the first few months of the Freemen News-Letter. Just a lot of really good, thought-provoking and clear-minded commentary on a full range of topics. It will take me while to catch up with sharing stuff in this ICYMI section, but we’ll get there little by little.
I’ll start by sharing an issue of Res Publica from our grand opening back on Constitution Day, written by our Associate Editor, Scott Howard, which gave us a hopeful and powerful reminder that “The US Constitution is the great achievement of America and in the drama of Western civilization.”
Later in September, Conor Quinn walked us through how “attempts to weaponize the Certification of Electors have grown into a serious challenge to our electoral process.”
Also in September, Benjamin Rothove argued that “The legitimacy of the Supreme Court relies on keeping it as depoliticized as possible,” and argued for the adoption of “A Keep Nine Amendment [that] would help keep an already over-politicized court from losing its independence altogether.”
Finally, the Executive Board of the Freemen Foundation (which I chair) offered its first official statement, a response to the horrendous October 7th pogrom by Hamas, declaring “by unanimous voice of the Freemen Foundation’s Executive Board, we condemn Hamas and their co-conspirators for their savagery and their acts of terrorism and voice our support to Israel and to Jewish freemen.”
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Stay Free My Friends,
Justin Stapley received his Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science from Utah Valley University, with emphases in Political Philosophy and Public Law, American History, and Constitutional Studies. He is the Founding and Executive Director of the Freemen Foundation as well as Editor in Chief of the Freemen News-Letter. @JustinWStapley