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The Most Rational Candidate
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The Most Rational Candidate

On Vivek, ‘scum,’ and Nazis.

Biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy speaks to members of the media in the spin room following the third Republican presidential primary debate in Miami, Florida, on November 8, 2023. (Photo by GIORGIO VIERA/AFP via Getty Images)

When the Republican primary ends next year, which candidate at Wednesday night’s debate will have done the most for him or herself politically?

Not Chris Christie or Tim Scott. Christie’s moment as a national contender passed years ago. He’s used the spotlight this campaign has granted him commendably by speaking hard truths about his friend Donald, but it’s made him a pariah on the right.

Scott’s moment has also passed. While he might remain viable in 2028 in theory, he’s too underwhelming as a retail politician to ever again be taken seriously as a presidential hopeful. If he runs again in the next cycle, some talented demagogue will eat him alive.

Not Ron DeSantis or Nikki Haley either. They’re the two highest-polling alternatives to Trump and therefore the candidates most likely to overtake him. But overtaking him would require attacking him aggressively, one would think, and neither seemed much interested in that. Even the moderators from NBC News didn’t bother about the elephant in the room after a brief segment early on.

DeSantis and Haley are polling well enough that they’d qualify as VP material in a more traditional party, yet Trump bears the governor for Florida too much of a grudge at this point to ever consider him. Haley is more plausible because of how well she polls head-to-head against Joe Biden, but the debates have become a sort of advertisement for how un-MAGA her sensibility is, especially on foreign policy. Trump wants a vice president who’ll do his bidding unthinkingly after his last one failed him in a big moment. Haley has already proved her willingness to defy him.

One could argue that she and DeSantis have improved their positions for 2028 by running this year, boosting their name recognition nationally. DeSantis has underperformed so dismally, however, that I wonder if populist voters will ever again look at him the same way. The gap between the hype that preceded his campaign and the results he delivered will dog him. He’s even become an object of ridicule to some in a party that relishes dominance and machismo in its leaders. 

As for Haley, her only hope of prevailing in the next cycle is Republicans losing again in this one, forcing a reckoning on the right with Trumpism that leads GOP voters to reembrace traditional conservatism and “electability.” Of course, that was also her plan for prevailing in this cycle; the post-2020 reckoning with MAGA populism never came. Why would anyone suppose it’ll come before 2028 when Trump is shaping up to do better in next year’s election than he did in the last one?

The candidate in last night’s debate who’s made the most lemonade out of the lemons handed to him in this dispiriting primary is plainly Vivek Ramaswamy.

None of us wants to hear that. When I told one of our editors this morning that I planned to write on the subject, he resisted because he couldn’t bear the thought of an attention whore as toxic as Vivek being lavished with our attention. If you watched the debate, you surely agree with what our own Sarah Isgur told the New York Times: Ramaswamy seems to be running for “most likely to get punched in the face.”

And if he does end up getting punched, I have a good idea who’ll do the punching.

Say what you want about Vivek. The fact is he was the only participant on Wednesday who seemed to recognize that what’s happening with these debates is wildly abnormal and has adapted his behavior accordingly. Watching them, you’d barely have any idea that the candidates onstage are trailing an absentee frontrunner by nearly 50 points and that the policy consensus among them diverges sharply from his in important ways.

That abnormality has created abnormal incentives, and Ramaswamy is the lone contender who’s trying to exploit them. He’s the most rational candidate of the five.

The most interesting thing about his performance at Wednesday’s debate is that it represented his third different tactical approach in as many tries.

He was aggressive at the first debate in August, calling himself the only person onstage who wasn’t “bought and paid for.” He spent the evening preening, throwing rhetorical elbows, and generally doing anything he could to stand out in a field of far better-known figures. That was rational.

But it didn’t do much for him in the polls. Ramaswamy gained less than a point in the RealClearPolitics national average after that debate, evidently leading him and his team to conclude that he’d been too brash in how he’d introduced himself. As a fast-talking populist in the MAGA mold, he had breakout potential; the trick to maximizing it was to avoid putting off populist voters with a too-abrasive demeanor.

So at the second debate in September, he toned things down. “There are good people on this stage,” he announced at one point. Later he said, almost sheepishly, “I’m the new guy here, and so I know I have to earn your trust. 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.” It was a new, (very slightly) more humble Vivek Ramaswamy. 

His polls dropped. After nosing past 8 percent in the national average a few days before the second debate, he began to sink. Within a week, Haley had passed him. As I write this on Thursday, he stands at 4.7 percent, leaving him a very distant fourth in the race. Some of his numbers in the early states are gruesome, with 60 percent in Haley’s home state of South Carolina saying they won’t consider voting for him. In Iowa, he went from +18 in net favorability in August to +6 last month.

Republican voters were curious about him this past summer. After taking a hard look, they no longer are. The candidate most likely to get punched in the face will not, go figure, have a “breakout” moment. 

Which left Team Ramaswamy with a dilemma before the third debate. With his faint chances at the nomination now truly zero, how should he play it? By doubling down on the “kinder, gentler Vivek” shtick? By dropping out and endorsing Trump?

No. He did the rational thing. He went full assclown.

He baited Haley into calling him “scum” by bringing up her daughter. He accused Volodymyr Zelensky of being a “Nazi,” echoing Kremlin propaganda. He threw a tantrum about the moderators, demanding to know why redpilled goblins Joe Rogan, Elon Musk, and Tucker Carlson weren’t hosting the debate instead. He blamed Tuesday’s disappointing election results on RNC chief Ronna McDaniel, absolving MAGA and its king of any responsibility. He floated a conspiracy theory about Michelle Obama replacing Biden as the Democratic nominee.

Oh, and he called for building a wall—on the northern border with Canada. “Ramaswamy is a right-wing Twitter thread come to life,” our friend David French marveled. “It’s actually uncanny how much he imitates the culture, positions and manners of right-wing Twitter trolls.”

It was a performance no respectable conservative would or could stomach. Put it this way: Mike Lee loved it.

Acting “unhinged” would seem less than rational for a guy whose polling drops every time GOP voters spend a few more hours with him. But given the state of this contest, it’s a model of clear strategic thought. All of the candidates onstage Wednesday are politically dead but only Ramaswamy appears to have accepted it, and so he’s the only one with an endgame that’s logical.

If he can’t win, he’s going to use his remaining time as a candidate to maximize his clout among right-wing populists. What are the others using their time for?

I don’t know what Christie and Scott hope to gain by hanging around. All they can do at this point is play spoiler for the higher-polling conservative, Haley, thereby weakening her chances of catching Trump.

DeSantis is hanging around because he finally landed a notable endorsement and because it would be catastrophically humiliating for him to flame out of the race before the first vote is cast. But the warning signs of a failing candidacy are there. Even if he shattered expectations and won Iowa, he appears to have no path in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Haley is hanging around because someone needs to be the One True Trump Alternative in the race and she looks best positioned. But the math of the Republican coalition is what it is. Unlike DeSantis, she appears to lack so much as a hypothetical strategy for winning a one-on-one race against Trump. Her best-case scenario is giving him a scare in the first few primaries before being graciously steamrolled.

Four candidates, all of them prominent, and not one of them has anything left resembling a plan for success. The “plan” in each case is simply to hold on and wait for fate to intervene somehow in a way that scrambles the race.

The only one with a plan to get something out of his candidacy that doesn’t depend on idle hope is Ramaswamy.

There are worse things to be in Republican politics than “a right-wing Twitter thread come to life” pitted against multiple Reaganite conservatives in a big nationally televised pageant.

It’s a sweet environment for a hustler like Ramaswmy. With Trump absent, he was the closest thing onstage on Wednesday to a “MAGA candidate.” DeSantis aspires to fill that niche too, but the hybrid nature of his base—part populist, part traditional—and the possibility that he might have to face a general electorate meant that he couldn’t mouth the “America First” worldview as unabashedly as Vivek could.

So Vivek did. Think what he might gain from it.

He might climb the ranks of Trump’s vice presidential shortlist. He probably won’t be the pick, as Trump would logically prefer a woman running mate and apparently finds Ramaswamy to be a bit “out there.” But he speaks MAGA fluently and will end up as a prized Trump surrogate on the campaign trail next fall. If nothing else, Trump will feel grateful to him for having roughed up the rising talent in the race, Haley, and for soaking up media oxygen that might otherwise have gone to her or DeSantis. We’ve had an off-and-on internal debate at The Dispatch about whether Vivek is a knowing stalking horse for Trump or whether he’s inadvertently slotted himself into that role by picking the fights he’s picked. Either way, he’s the purest Trump ally in the race. That might be worth something if and when it comes time to pick a cabinet in 2025.

He might also be the only person in the race who’s made himself more viable, not less, as a candidate for office going forward. His wealth and newfound fame will make him formidable if he runs for governor in his very red home state of Ohio in 2026, particularly if he spends the next few years building governing credentials in a new Trump administration or a national following in right-wing media. Governor Vivek would be a semi-serious presidential contender in 2028, assuming he can figure out a way before then not to viscerally annoy everyone to the left of Marjorie Taylor Greene. 

If nothing else, Wednesday night boosted Ramaswamy’s value as an infotainer. Normal people, including normal Republicans, like him less the more they see of him, but there are a lot of abnormal people on the American right primed to feel differently. They’ve made figures like Tucker Carlson and Steve Bannon powerful in the party, and they can do the same for Vivek. He’s used his campaign to turn himself into one of the country’s best known and most eloquent America-First-ers. Demand for him will persist among the Tucker wing when the primary is over.

He’s a picture-perfect example of someone exploiting the electoral process for fame and influence and doing so skillfully. Republican politics demands colorful demagogues, so Ramaswamy has supplied it. It isn’t clear yet what he’ll get out of it, but he’ll get something—which is more than can be said for any of his opponents on Wednesday.

And let’s be fair to him. Intentionally or not, he’s providing a service.

Because Trump won’t attend the debates and because DeSantis is constrained by his hybrid coalition, Vivek is the only candidate willing to show the public what a meaningful share of the grassroots American actually believes.

The discordantly hawkish bent of Haley, Christie, and Scott on Wednesday night left old-school Republicans reminiscing or snarking about a dependably interventionist party that’s long gone. “So far, 3 of the 5 Republicans want to start wars against China, Russia, Syria and Iran. These people are lunatics,” Ann Coulter tweeted during the debate. It’s preposterous that the “America First” worldview of Donald Trump, whose polling exceeds that of all five debate participants combined, was relegated to a minority view at what’s supposed to be a meaningful conversation over the direction of the party. I’d go so far as to call it false advertising by the RNC. 

But it was less false than it might have been thanks to Vivek, who taunted the hawks onstage about the “disaster” in Ukraine that they support amid his “Nazi” jibes. The least we should expect from these debates is fair warning to the general electorate of what they can expect from a second Trump term. The rest of the field, including Christie, seems curiously disinterested in making an issue of the utter civic arson Trump is planning on committing as president. Ramaswamy at least was willing to offer a glimpse of the foreign policy that Trump’s base is clamoring for, in case voters are under the impression that it’ll look just like it did in his first term. It will not.

The better the information someone has, the more able they are to act rationally when making a choice. Ramaswamy has improved the quality of the information available about the state of the GOP. He’s the “rational candidate” in more ways than one.

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.