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A Debate About Nothing, and Everything
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A Debate About Nothing, and Everything

High stakes and low in Milwaukee.

Supporters of former President Donald Trump carry signs depicting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis outside the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on August 23, 2023. (Photo by Brendan SMIALOWSKI / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

I had planned to write about how most of tonight’s Republican debate participants deserve to have their ‘nads zapped with electric shocks, but I see that the subject has been covered elsewhere.

Maybe I’ll address it in the future. It’s a rich genre, full of possibilities.

Instead, let’s talk about something even more comically absurd. Let’s talk about Rudy Giuliani.

It’s been so long since Rudy was anything more than a pitifully broken clown in public that some of my own colleagues at The Dispatch have no memory of it, I suspect. Someday those of us on staff who are of colonoscopy age will gather around the young’uns and tell them all about how Giuliani was once taken semi-seriously in politics. Really.

Seriously enough to have been named Time magazine’s Person of the Year. Seriously enough to have (briefly) led Republican presidential polls one cycle. Seriously enough to have been twice elected mayor of America’s biggest city. Seriously enough to have served as Ronald Reagan’s top prosecutor in Manhattan, where he put away numerous mobsters on racketeering charges.

Today, the day of the first 2024 Republican presidential debate, Rudy Giuliani surrendered to authorities in Georgia and was booked—on racketeering charges.

His decline and disgrace isn’t a perfect metaphor for the decline and disgrace of the Republican Party—Rudy never pretended to be dogmatically conservative, for instance, which is why he led the polls of yesteryear only briefly. But it feels right that while the rest of the field meets in Milwaukee to discuss the future of the country, henchmen of the guy who’s up 40 points in the current primary are spending Wednesday having their mugshots taken. The modern GOP is part political party, part criminal syndicate. Today’s split-screen reminds us.

It also makes tonight’s debate a preposterous spectacle. But not an entirely useless one.

Our country’s political debates are preposterous spectacles at the best of times. A game show format, in which each participant has 60 seconds to speak, is not the ideal way to explore the nuances of, say, entitlement spending or containing China. It rewards glibness, aggression, and showmanship. A well-timed zinger is the highest form of the art.

It’s very American. When you find yourself wondering how we got Trump, consider the fact that our most “substantive” election forums are now all but engineered to select for yutzes like him.

Still, a debate that’s preposterous merely by the traditional standards would be welcome. There are stark policy differences between the candidates this cycle, something that was seldom true in Republican primaries prior to 2016. (Ron Paul excepted.) Even the 60-second soundbite format could produce some illuminating contrasts between the populists in the field and the old-school conservatives on the subject of Ukraine, for example.

We’ll get a few minutes of that tonight, I’m sure, but a FoPo showdown over Ukraine isn’t why people will be watching. They’ll be watching because Republican primary polls have turned the debate into a grand litmus test for the rest of the field on whether they think the one candidate who declined to attend is fit for office.

Should a man who tried to overturn an election on false pretenses and got himself impeached and indicted for his trouble be trusted with the presidency? The also-rans will be asked variations of that question and their answers will reveal their own fitness for office. Which makes this a very high-stakes debate in one sense, if low-stakes in most others.

Charlie Sykes isn’t wrong when he says that the “show of hands” questions disdained by candidates and viewers might be the most important asked. A show of hands is even less informative than a 60-second scripted soundbite, but in this case the binary clarity it will produce on certain “sensitive” subjects is necessary. Did Biden win the election? Did Mike Pence do the right thing on January 6? Are any of the indictments against Trump good reason not to vote for him next fall? Should he be pardoned if convicted?

Are Rudy Giuliani and the rest of the gang being mugshotted this week in Fulton County villains or martyrs? Show of hands, please.

The responses will tell us more about Ron DeSantis as a man and as a leader than watching him word-salad his way through a take on Ukraine. I want to know precisely how comfortable he and the others on stage are with the moral degradation of their party and their country.

We’ve been fortunate as Americans in the past to have our political debates concern themselves with what we might call second-order questions, such as disagreements over policy: Do we want a higher tax rate and more wealth redistribution, as Democrats prefer, or a lower tax rate and less redistribution, as Republicans do? Second-order questions are a luxury, something you proceed to argue about once both sides have agreed on the answers to first-order questions. 

First-order questions have to do with the structure of government. Shall we have democracy or autocracy, classical liberalism or conspiratorial authoritarianism? If the GOP no longer attracts majority support consistently, which should change—its platform or its fidelity to majority rule?

The Republican Party no longer has a consensus on first-order questions. The answers to those questions tonight are everything. The answers to second-order questions, for now, are nothing.

For all the hype about Chris Christie laying waste to the opposition, only two candidates on stage this evening “matter” to this primary. Both have allowed themselves to be made preposterous in different ways by the grassroots right’s interest in debating first-order questions.

Ron DeSantis is one. He’s tried to resolve the conflict between classical liberalism and conspiratorial authoritarianism by essentially denying that there is a conflict, asking, “Why choose?”

That’s his way of managing an impossible coalition of pro-Trump populists and anti-Trump conservatives. The former get dark insinuations about vaccine malfeasance and a “territorial dispute” in Ukraine, the latter get reassurances about electability and Putin being bad. The 2020 election wasn’t stolen, DeSantis acknowledges, appeasing his normie supporters. But it was dubiously conducted, soothing the grievances of his Trumpier fans.

Populists will be glad to know that he devoted a chapter of his new book to crowing about persecuting “woke corporations.” Conservatives will be happy to hear that he’s over it now and has “moved on.”

The impossible demands of DeSantis’ impossible coalition explain why his position on Trump’s electability remains half-pregnant. The governor insists that he stands a better chance against Biden next fall than the frontrunner does, pointing to his margin of victory in Florida last year. But ask him about those four indictments, the heart of the case that Trump can’t win another general election, and he tends to get a constipated look on his face while grumbling about “politicized justice.”

What else can he do, though? According to a new NBC poll, “more than half of likely GOP caucusgoers in Iowa—54 percent—say they’re less likely to vote for candidates who ‘aggressively criticize’ former President Donald Trump over the multiple criminal charges he’s facing.” As potent as attacking Trump over his indictments might be among conservative voters, there’s reason to think doing so would hurt DeSantis badly among populist ones.

A survey published on Tuesday by Yahoo News finds that his half-pregnant campaign pitch has left him in no-man’s land politically, driving him to a new low of 12 percent in national polling after he stood at 23 percent as recently as last month. He now trails Trump 60-23 head-to-head, which is notable insofar as Trump notches just 52 percent against the entire field. When given a binary choice between the two, in other words, some voters who currently prefer a different nominee to Trump nonetheless prefer Trump to the governor of Florida.

I expect DeSantis will, true to form, deliver a series of answers tonight that will alienate one side of his coalition, then the other, and back again. In the end he’ll please no one, victimized by the irreconcilable demands of classical liberals and post-liberals. And Trump’s sycophants will move heaven and earth afterward to make sure that he’s humiliated, knowing how Republican voters relish boorish displays of dominance:

Ron DeSantis is a smart guy who takes policy seriously and can converse fluently in it. Tonight he’ll have a forum that should—should—showcase that talent. Instead, one of his opponents will inevitably uncork a zinger at him that Team Trump will amplify opportunistically to make him more of an object of ridicule than he’s already become. Even if he proves he knows his stuff, his worst moment is likely to circulate more widely than his best ones.

I almost feel for him. But he wanted to lead this garbage party for some twisted reason, so let him take his medicine.

The other candidate who matters tonight is Vivek Ramaswamy. Unlike DeSantis, Ramaswamy has chosen to ally himself unabashedly with the post-liberal populist wing of the party. He’s preposterous because he’s taken up the standard of a preposterous political movement.

But he’s also a preposterous figure in his own right. I dislike him intensely. In any other primary I’d tell you he’s the worst candidate in the field.

I can’t tell you that in this primary because … well, you know.

Political media is full of attacks on him today. Partly that’s due to his movement in the polls, as he’s now just 4 points behind DeSantis in the Yahoo News survey I mentioned and sits in third in the RealClearPolitics national average. He’s the only candidate besides Donald Trump who’s gaining vote share. There’s every reason to think he’ll pass DeSantis for second if he performs well tonight. With greater stature comes greater media scrutiny.

Team Ron and its supporters also have their knives out for him, understandably. That’s not just a strategic matter of fending off an up-and-comer in the polls, I think, but a matter of true contempt for a fast-talking nobody whose chief political talent is telling the populist base what it wants to hear. DeSantis served in the military, learned the ropes of legislating in Congress, signed a raft of right-wing culture-war legislation into law as governor, then got reelected by an historic margin. Yet he’s now on the verge of running behind a cartoonishly smug tech bro who thinks he knows everything while actually knowing nothing, having begun to learn foreign policy a scant six months ago by his own admission.

And who, by the way, reportedly told conservative activists earlier this year that he thought he “could stop DeSantis from running or impact his viability as a candidate” by running for president himself. It’s one thing to face a Trump stalking horse in the primary …

… and quite another to have that stalking horse actually succeed in carrying out his mission of sinking your chances, which Ramaswamy increasingly seems likely to do to DeSantis.

If Team Ron were honest, it might also admit that it resents—and is even jealous of—Ramaswamy’s utter shamelessness.

DeSantis has gone quite far in pandering to the populist right’s most febrile impulses, but Vivek looks to be in a class by himself. During one recent interview he said he didn’t believe the U.S. government had told the truth about 9/11. When challenged on that, he clarified that he meant merely that the Saudi government might have been more involved than we know. (Someone should remind him that Trump loves the Saudis.) The subject was broached again in a second interview, and this time Ramaswamy wondered how many federal agents were aboard the planes hijacked on 9/11. When confronted about that, he protested and said he’d been misquoted.

Then the audio was published showing that he’d said it after all.

“He’s very smooth,” one of tonight’s debate moderators, Bret Baier, observed about Vivek denying forcefully that he’d said what he obviously had said. That’s one way to put it. Another way is that he’s an unnervingly brazen liar who compensates for his inch-deep policy knowledge with an intuitive feel for how to talk to the Republican base. He offers them comically simplistic solutions to complex problems, larded up with conspiratorial accusations, and delivers it with pugnacious bravado. He has an insatiable appetite for media appearances, making him seem inescapable. And he believes less democracy rather than more would be good for the American right. 

He reminds me of another Republican I know.

Imagine being Ron DeSantis, the so-called “Trump but competent” candidate, finding yourself not only being crushed by Trump himself but on the verge of being passed by a guy who’s somehow more superficially Trumpy than you are.

No sensible person would take seriously a guy whom Alex Jones describes as “Alex Jones 2.0.” Fortunately for Vivek, he’s running as a Republican. If, come next week, he’s emerged in polling as the big winner from tonight’s debate, it’ll be poetic. At the same time that Rudy Giuliani, a hero of 9/11, was being processed in Georgia, a new star who wonders (or pretends to wonder) if feds were aboard the planes that took down the World Trade Center will have been born.

The most revealing question and answer this evening, I suspect, will be “Can Donald Trump win the 2024 election?”

In a race without Vivek Ramaswamy in it, I think Ron DeSantis might answer “no.” After all, this is his grand opportunity before a national audience to make the argument against Trump that he’s been reluctant to make so far. If he’s finally going to run hard on electability (and competence), tonight’s the night he should logically start.

In a race with Vivek Ramaswamy in it, I don’t know what DeSantis will say.

With the upstart breathing down his neck and threatening to cannibalize his populist support, the governor might feel obliged to protect his right flank by agreeing with Ramaswamy that Trump can win while caveating it weakly with “but I’d win more easily” or some such thing.

It’s important for DeSantis not to fall to third place. If it happens, donors will quit on him and the media will write his premortem. His image will shift from a candidate who remains for now, however tentatively, the best hope of defeating Trump to a figure of pathos who couldn’t hold off a guy who presents, with every fiber of his being, as a particularly unctuous used-car salesman. He’ll hear the words “Scott Walker” every day for the rest of the campaign until he drops out.

So I think he’ll play defense rather than offense tonight, more focused on wounding Ramaswamy to secure his hold on second place than on wounding Trump in an all-out bid to win. Team Ron might reasonably calculate at this point that there’s nothing they can do to gain on the frontrunner in the near term; their best bet for victory is to protect their “fallback option” status and hope that Republican voters develop cold feet organically about nominating a soon-to-be convicted felon for president as Iowa approaches.

And that too would be fitting on Giuliani Day in Fulton County. What are the indictments in Georgia, after all, if not the logical outcome of moral corruption in service to power and relevance? Ron DeSantis, the heir apparent, has spent seven years biting his tongue about Trump’s moral corruption in order to grow his own power and relevance within the party. Now 40 points behind and with his eye increasingly on 2028, I doubt he’ll find his courage tonight.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.