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Debatable Outcomes
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Debatable Outcomes

The third GOP presidential debate was the most substantive yet—but did it matter?

Happy Thursday! The Smithsonian National Zoo’s panda family—Mei Xiang, Tian Tian, and Xiao Qi Ji—left Washington for China yesterday aboard a FedEx flight, leaving Zoo Atlanta the only remaining place in the United States with the lovable bears (don’t tell Jonah we said that) on display. China’s loan agreement with that zoo expires next year, meaning America could soon be panda-less for the first time in decades. We can only hope this is on the top of Biden’s agenda when he meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping next week.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The European Union (EU) on Wednesday endorsed the start of negotiations for Ukraine and Moldova to join the bloc. The European Commission recommended that accession talks be opened as both countries have made progress on the bloc’s various prerequisites, but ultimate membership in the EU could take years and would require Ukraine to make additional reforms reducing corruption and the influence of oligarchs in the country’s economy. “Ukraine continues to face tremendous hardship and tragedy, provoked by Russia’s war of aggression,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday. “And yet, Ukrainians are deeply reforming their country.” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukraine deserves membership for its defense of European values and efforts to reform.
  • United States fighter jets conducted an airstrike against weapons facilities used by Iranian proxy groups in eastern Syria, Pentagon officials announced Wednesday. The move comes amidst a major uptick in attacks against U.S. military personnel in the region by Iranian-backed militias since mid-October. “This precision self-defense strike is a response to a series of attacks against U.S. personnel in Iraq and Syria by IRGC-Quds Force affiliates,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement. “The President has no higher priority than the safety of U.S. personnel, and he directed today’s action to make clear that the United States will defend itself, its personnel, and its interests.” A U.S. military official told reporters yesterday that “a couple” people were at the warehouse when the strike occurred, but that the U.S. believes no civilians were killed.
  • Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that the U.S. expects to see a significant Palestinian role in governing a post-Hamas Gaza, after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said earlier this week that the Israeli military will control the Gaza Strip “for an indefinite period” following the war. “We’re very clear on no reoccupation, just as we’re very clear on no displacement of the Palestinian population,” Blinken said, urging that any future plans “must include Palestinian-led governance and Gaza unified with the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority.”
  • The House Oversight Committee issued subpoenas on Wednesday for Hunter Biden and James Biden—President Joe Biden’s son and brother—and requested interviews with Hunter’s wife, a former business associate of Hunter’s, and several other Biden family members. The committee “has followed the money and built a record of evidence,” Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer said. “Now, [the committee] is going to bring in members of the Biden family and their associates to question them on this record of evidence.” Hunter’s legal team and the White House decried the development as part of a GOP “smear campaign” against President Biden. “This is a yet another political stunt,” said Abbe Lowell, an attorney for the younger Biden. “Nevertheless, Hunter is eager to have the opportunity, in a public forum and at the right time, to discuss these matters with the Committee.”
  • The Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday dismissed a case attempting to keep former President Donald Trump off the state’s primary ballot under the insurrection clause of the 14th Amendment. “There is no state statute that prohibits a major political party from placing on the presidential nomination primary ballot, or sending delegates to the national convention supporting, a candidate who is ineligible to hold office,” Minnesota Chief Justice Natalie Hudson wrote in a brief order. The court did, however, leave open the possibility of a petition challenging Trump’s eligibility for the general election ballot. “The petition must be dismissed,” Hudson wrote, “but without prejudice as to petitioners bringing a petition raising their claims as to the general election.”
  • SAG-AFTRA, the actors’ union, reached a tentative deal with Hollywood studios Wednesday night, ending the strike that had lasted for months. The deal—valued at over $1 billion—reportedly includes increased pay for actors, a streaming participation bonus, boosted pension and health benefits, and compensation stipulations related to the use of AI, among other provisions. “We have achieved a deal of extraordinary scope,” the union said in a statement. The strike was officially suspended last night while the deal is pending full approval.

Miami Vice (Presidential Debate?)

Chris Christie, Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Tim Scott take the stage at the third Republican debate at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, on Wednesday, November 8, 2023. (Photo by Thomas Simonetti for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Chris Christie, Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Tim Scott take the stage at the third Republican debate at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, on Wednesday, November 8, 2023. (Photo by Thomas Simonetti for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Before the five qualifying candidates took to the debate stage in Miami, Florida, last night, biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy gave an ABC News reporter a taste of his strategy: “Be unhinged,” he said.

Twelve minutes into the program, he had lamented that Tucker Carlson, Joe Rogan, and Elon Musk weren’t co-moderating the debate, and called both former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, “Dick Cheney in three-inch heels.” Promises made, promises kept, we suppose.

Ramaswamy’s “unhinged”-ness aside, the third GOP debate was remarkably tame—and even substantive—compared to the candidates’ first two outings. The five contenders on stage addressed questions on the war in Israel, the economy, and Republicans’ recent electoral struggles under strict instructions from the moderators—Kristen Welker and Lester Holt of NBC News and Hugh Hewitt of Salem Radio—not to interrupt each other, on the threat of receiving fewer questions. But for all its relative depth on policy, the debate nevertheless did little to provide an answer to the only question that mattered: Why one of the Republicans on stage, and not former President Donald Trump?

That was the first question out of the gate last night. But few candidates took the opportunity to land a forceful blow against the prohibitive frontrunner—currently running roughly 30 points ahead of his nearest competitors in Iowa, where caucus-goers will vote on their preferred candidates in only 67 days. “Donald Trump’s a lot different guy than he was in 2016,” DeSantis said of the man who was at that moment holding his own political rally 12 miles away. “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.” 

Haley took a similar tack to DeSantis, criticizing her former boss’ record even as she seemed to praise his presidency. “He was the right president at the right time,” she said. “I don’t think he’s the right president now. I think that he put us $8 trillion in debt and our kids are never going to forgive us for that. I think the fact that he used to be right on Ukraine and foreign issues, now he’s getting weak in the knees and trying to be friendly again. I think we’ve got to go back to the fact that we can’t live in the past.”

Only former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who’s built his 2024 campaign around his willingness to take on Trump directly, mentioned the 91 felony indictments the former president is facing for allegedly illegally retaining classified documents and attempting to overturn the results of the 2020 election, among other alleged crimes. “I’ll say this about Donald Trump,” Christie added, almost as an afterthought, to his opening statement. “Anyone who’s going to spend the next year-and-a-half of their life focusing on keeping themselves out of jail and court rooms cannot lead this party or this country, and it needs to be said plainly.” 

And with that, the candidates were pretty much done talking about the first-place GOP contender. The moderators never directly addressed Trump again—besides one more brief appeal in the final question to once again explain why they, and not the absentee former president, deserved to be the Republican nominee. Predictably, none of them took that second opening.

It’s unsurprising that questions on foreign policy filled much of the debate’s two hours, at a time when, as Haley said during the debate, “the world is on fire.” Israel, America’s closest ally in the Middle East, is waging war on the terrorist organization Hamas, which attacked Israel just over a month ago. The candidates were fairly united in their support of Israel and its right to defend itself—with the exception of Ramaswamy, a staunch isolationist, who said it was Israel’s “responsibility,” as well as its right, to defend itself, before adding he wanted “to avoid making the mistakes of the neocon establishment of the past.” (This was the point at which he compared Haley to the former V.P. in stilettos, which Haley helpfully clarified were five inches tall, not three, and for “ammunition,” not fashion.)

The other candidates embraced more hawkish positions—especially on Iran’s involvement in the conflict. After news broke Wednesday evening of another U.S. strike in Syria against the weapons facility of a Tehran-backed militia that had carried out an attack on U.S. forces in the area, Haley, Christie, and DeSantis favored responding forcefully against the militias and criticized President Joe Biden’s reported efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina—who has not been front-and-center in previous debates and seemed to benefit from NBC News’ policy of giving every candidate the opportunity to answer every question—was the most explicit on the stage in saying he favored bombing sites in Iran itself. “I would tell President Biden with great clarity: ‘If you want to stop the 40-plus attacks on military personnel in the Middle East, you have to strike Iran,’” he said. “You actually have to cut off the head of the snake, and the head of the snake is Iran.” 

But the Middle East is not the only site of violence and unrest in the world—and though the five GOP contestants broke little new ground on the question of U.S. aid to Ukraine (Christie and Haley in favor, DeSantis and Scott in favor with serious caveats, and Ramaswamy staunchly opposed—with some Russian talking points thrown in for good measure), questions over the approach to China drew out deep policy divides. The debate stage was a new venue for an ongoing spat between DeSantis and Haley over their respective records on China. DeSantis took aim at Haley for having granted state land near a military base to a Chinese fiberglass company, contingent on their investment in South Carolina’s economy, repeating criticisms from an ad launched by his super PAC currently flooding airwaves in Iowa—where a new Des Moines Register poll has Haley and DeSantis tied for second. Haley responded in kind, accusing DeSantis of having scrubbed references to encouraging investment from China from the website of “SelectFlorida,” the state’s public-private international business recruitment agency. Reporting from The Messenger confirmed that the information had recently been removed; the DeSantis administration said it was part of normal website maintenance after a new state law dissolved SelectFlorida’s predecessor.

Don’t get us wrong—the debate wasn’t all highbrow policy disagreements. At one point, Ramaswamy brought up Haley’s 25-year-old daughter, arguing her presence on TikTok—where Ramaswamy also maintains an account—rendered Haley’s efforts to ban the Chinese-owned social media app hypocritical. “Leave my daughter out of your voice,” Haley shot back as the crowd booed Ramaswamy’s dig. Then, almost under her breath, she added: “You’re just scum.”

When it came to the economy, the candidates more or less shifted their attacks away from each other and trained their collective fire on Biden and his “Bidenomics” plan. The president’s approval numbers on the economy are underwater, and despite his efforts to sell his economic agenda to the country, a CBS News poll released this week showed that 48 percent of likely voters believe Biden’s policies would make them worse off financially if he won a second term. When asked how they would address the cost of living, the candidates on stage almost unanimously zeroed in on policies to lower energy prices—by increasing drilling and fracking and providing the oil futures markets with promises of fewer regulations on energy production. “I agree with Tim [Scott] on this,” Christie said, as if he and the senator were part of a panel discussion and not a presidential debate. “Absolutely energy is key on this because it drives every one of those other prices.”

The Republican-on-Republican fire returned, though, when the focus shifted to the GOP’s various election losses on Tuesday—and voters’ repeated rebukes of pro-life positions at the ballot box. DeSantis essentially blamed pro-life activists, whom he said have been “caught flat-footed” on state referendums. Scott—who’s been courting the evangelical vote in Iowa—doubled down on his pro-life bona fides, saying he’d be in favor of signing a 15-week federal abortion ban and challenging Haley and DeSantis to pledge the same.

Haley, however, stuck to her more moderate, incrementalist position: “When it comes to the federal law, which is what’s being debated here, be honest,” she told her fellow candidates. “It’s going to take 60 Senate votes, the majority of the House, and a president to sign it. … No Republican president can ban abortions any more than a Democratic president can ban these [more restrictive] state laws. … Let’s focus on how to save as many babies as we can and support as many moms as we can.” 

As the second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth place candidates were debating the finer points of foreign, economic, and social policy, the first place contender was in a Hispanic community near Miami holding one of his signature campaign rallies. Every glancing criticism the other contenders had of Trump—for his failure to keep campaign promises, for living in the past, or for his indictments—the former president presented as strengths. “I’m being indicted for you,” he told the crowd. At another point in his speech, he said the 2020 election was stolen, the false claim at the heart of several of the state and federal charges against him.

Indeed, in an almost-perfect rerun of his 2016 campaign, Trump promised to reinstate one of his flagship promises. “On day one, we will restore the Trump travel ban on entry from terror-plagued countries,” said Trump at his rally on Wednesday, as he promised to “implement strict vetting, ideological screening for all new entrance into our country.” Indeed, despite the Class of 2024’s best attempts to talk tough and emulate some of the former president’s greatest hits, it seems that none are able to out-Trump Trump.

“Voters are begging for an alternative to President Trump, who is as tough and badass as President Trump, but whom they like better,” Gail Gitcho, a Republican consultant who worked for Ramaswamy until May but is no longer affiliated with any campaign, told TMD ahead of the debate. But for the thousands of Trump fans who are still tuning in to the former president’s counterprogramming, there simply might not be a candidate they prefer to the original. 

Worth Your Time

  • Writing for National Affairs, Daniel Stid explores how mid-20th century political scientists conceived of the party system and what guidance they can offer today. “They viewed the problem of union—how to maintain a modicum of national unity in James Madison’s extended republic—as the persistent and fundamental challenge of American politics,” he wrote. “They understood the country’s decentralized and ungainly party system—really a system of party systems—to be intertwined with, and well suited for, our diverse society and constitutional arrangements. They were also prescient about the harmful consequences of moving toward the more expressly democratic and nationalized two-party system sought (initially) by progressive scholars and (subsequently) by ideologues in both parties. Given what idealistic reformers and determined partisans have since wrought, we cannot return to the more traditional party system fathomed by the conservative cohort. … Perhaps we can regain some of the decentralized dynamics and subtle, consensus-building virtues of the previous era. Fostering factions, revitalizing local parties, enabling more parties in more places, and reconnecting politicians with their constituents could help restore the coalitional politics needed to solve the problem of union. The first and most important step, however, needs to occur in the realm of ideas. We need to understand the problem in its proper terms.”

Presented Without Comment

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky: “Sometimes I’m looking at all these wars, looking at all the crises, not only [in] Ukraine, everywhere, in Africa, in [the] Middle East. Sometimes I’m looking at this and think the best way [is] if this planet will be the planet of dogs. Sometimes, I don’t understand people.” 

Also Presented Without Comment

Donald Trump on Saturday: “Wow, Daniel Cameron of Kentucky has made a huge surge, now that they see my strong Endorsement, and the fact that he’s not really ‘a McConnell guy.’ They only try to label him that because he comes from the Great State of Kentucky. Anyway, Go Daniel, great future for you and your State—You will bring it to new levels of success, and I will help you!”

Donald Trump on Wednesday: “Daniel Cameron lost because he couldn’t alleviate the stench of Mitch McConnell. I told him early that’s a big burden to overcome. McConnell and Romney are Kryptonite for Republican Candidates. I moved him up 25 Points, but the McConnell relationship was ‘too much to bear.’”

Toeing the Company Line

  • Thank you to all the Dispatch members who joined Jonah, Steve, James, Grayson, and Alex at our New York City event last night! Reminder: Seattle-area readers can join Jonah and Kevin for a meet-up at the Hyatt Regency Bellevue on December 14 at 6 p.m. PT. Tickets are $15 and include two drink tickets, mingling with other Dispatch readers, and access to a Q&A session with Jonah and Kevin. Dispatch members will have exclusive access (🔒) to tickets until November 19—and they’re going quickly!
  • In the newsletters: The Dispatch Politics crew explains the aftermath of Tuesday’s election results, Jonah unpacks (🔒) how anti-Zionism overlaps with antisemitism, and Nick argues (🔒) Republicans’ electoral woes can be traced back to the party’s deinstitutionalization.
  • On the podcasts: Sarah and David break down two gun cases that aren’t gun cases on Advisory Opinions and Jonah is joined by Dan Senor on The Remnant to discuss his new book, The Genius of Israel: The Surprising Resilience of a Divided Nation in a Turbulent World.
  • On the site: Mike reports on all the headaches progressive Rep. Rashida Tlaib is giving House Democrats, Kevin Carroll draws historical parallels between Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s 1864 letter to the mayor of Atlanta and Israel’s war against Hamas, and Rebeccah Heinrichs argues Biden’s foreign policy is too timid.

Let Us Know

Did you think there was a clear winner or loser from last night’s debate? Or has Trump’s absence rendered the entire debate process a useless exercise?

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James Scimecca

James Scimecca works on editorial partnerships for The Dispatch, and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he served as the director of communications at the Empire Center for Public Policy. When James is not promoting the work of his Dispatch colleagues, he can usually be found running along the Potomac River, cooking up a new recipe, or rooting for a beleaguered New York sports team.

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Mary Trimble

Mary Trimble is the editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, she interned at The Dispatch, in the political archives at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and at Voice of America, where she produced content for their French-language service to Africa. When not helping write The Morning Dispatch, she is probably watching classic movies, going on weekend road trips, or enjoying live music with friends.

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Grayson Logue

Grayson Logue is the deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in political risk consulting, helping advise Fortune 50 companies. He was also an assistant editor at Providence Magazine and is a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a Master’s degree in history. When Grayson is not helping write The Morning Dispatch, he is probably working hard to reduce the number of balls he loses on the golf course.