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Who Won (and Lost) the First Republican Debate

Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

With Joe Biden’s Justice Department hunting patriots for the crime of loving their country (and/or doing one small coup) and woke mobs trying to cancel Jesus Christ, eight of the GOP’s top presidential contenders gathered in Milwaukee to debate the most pressing questions facing our beleaguered republic. But the only question that really matters is this: Which candidates derived the most political benefit from Wednesday night’s earned-media opportunity and which the least, as measured by the subjective impressions of one godless cosmopolitan in New York City?

Happily, I am well-positioned to answer this question. Here’s who won and lost the first round of the GOP’s battle for second place.

Winner: Ron DeSantis

The Florida governor entered the debate as the Republican best positioned to lose to Trump by 40 points. He also entered in a tailspin, having shed nearly ten points of national support since late June. Thus, DeSantis needed a strong performance to reassure his donors and win over lukewarm voters.

On Wednesday night, he deftly showcased his charmless competence. DeSantis hit all the marks presumably set for him by his super-PAC. He touted his gubernatorial accomplishments and landslide reelection. He found ways to ostensibly defend Trump while actually knocking him: Asked whether Mike Pence had done the right thing on January 6, DeSantis said that Republicans needed to stop re-litigating the 2020 election (which is, of course, the GOP front-runner’s favorite past-time). At another point, he promised that when president, he “will never let the deep state bureaucrats lock you down. You don’t take somebody like Fauci and coddle him; you bring him, you sit him down, and say ‘Anthony, you are fired!’” He fed the GOP base its daily allotment of psychotic jingoism, promising to send the U.S. military into Mexico and summarily execute drug-smuggling migrants at the border. And he did it all with the charisma of a student-council treasurer, cycling through the same starter pack of vocal inflections, all flat as warm cola. In between, he flashed his signature spine-tingling smile:

By the standards of a campaign that released an ad featuring Nazi iconography and accidentally leaked its own debate strategy to the New York Times, this qualified as a smashing success.

Winner: Mike Pence

The former vice-president currently boasts just over 4 percent support in primary polls. And yet, through the sheer power of his faith in the Constitution and utter contempt for the debate’s rules, Pence managed to secure more speaking time than any other contender. Trump’s veep ignored Fox News’ “time’s up” bell like it was a lunch-meeting request from a female colleague. With his outsize share of the spotlight, Pence made a compelling case for why he is the only choice for Republican primary voters who believe that Donald Trump must be held accountable for January 6, that women should be forced to carry nonviable pregnancies to term, and that Kevin Bacon played the villain in Footloose. It’s safe to say that he locked up all 25 of them.

Loser: Vivek Ramaswamy

It is entirely possible that a silent majority of Americans are looking to make the biggest sociopath at the prep-school debate tournament their president. If so, the entrepreneur just printed his ticket to the White House.

Ramaswamy exuded supreme confidence and self-regard as he declared climate change a hoax, vowed to form a geopolitical alliance with Vladimir Putin, promised to pardon Trump, and plagiarized Barack Obama. But unlike the last cantankerous tycoon to grace the GOP debate stage, Ramaswamy’s demagoguery was devoid of all camp or fun. The businessman patently aims to court Trump’s loyalists, perhaps in the hope that he may inherit them should God or the law fell the ex-president before Super Tuesday. But while Trump himself won’t take issue with the unctuousness of Ramaswamy’s pandering, it seems likely that many MAGA Americans will conclude that Vivek just isn’t their kind of conman. Indeed, by midway through the debate, the Fox News crowd booed at the very idea of listening to Ramaswamy speak for another 30 seconds.

Loser: Tim Scott

In a testament to the political press’s desperation for a competitive primary between halfway plausible candidates, the South Carolina senator rode into Milwaukee on a wave of headlines touting his “rise” and “momentum,” which had propelled him into … fifth place, just 48.5 points behind Donald Trump.

To turn the wholly theoretical “Scott moment” into an actual one, the senator needed to make his presence felt. Instead, he receded into the background for the bulk of the debate, resurfacing every once in a while to remind the audience that politics is boring.

Loser: Nikki Haley

The former South Carolina governor made a strong case for her superlative electability. Alone among the field’s candidates, Haley made a point of acknowledging the conservative agenda’s limited popular appeal. While reiterating her personal opposition to abortion, Haley noted that there is nowhere near the congressional support necessary for enacting a broad national ban. In light of this reality, she counseled the anti-abortion movement to focus its federal efforts on areas of potential majoritarian consensus, such as the banning of late-term abortions, the subsidization of adoption, and the widespread provision of contraceptives. In another moment, she informed her fellow Republicans that Donald Trump is “the most disliked politician in America.”

While advocating for decidedly conservative issue positions, Haley projected an air of high-minded realism, noting that, with regard to the (supposed) national-debt crisis, “Biden didn’t do this to us. Our Republicans did this to us too.” All and all, the former governor came across as the most informed, capable, and honest candidate on the stage. In other words, she’s cooked.

Loser: Your grandchildren

In 2007, George W. Bush called for restricting carbon emissions from U.S. power plants. The following year, the Republican Party’s presidential nominee, John McCain, proposed a mandatory limit on greenhouse-gas pollution in the United States.

Fifteen years later, the eight candidates at the GOP’s debate could scarcely bring themselves to affirm the reality of climate change, following the hottest July on record. Vivek Ramaswamy went so far as to declare climate change a hoax, and insist that fossil fuels would be eternally indispensable to human prosperity. Others, like Haley, acknowledged that man-made warming was real, but insisted that Biden’s attempt to expedite green-energy development through federal subsidies — just about the least intrusive approach to the problem on offer — clearly wasn’t “working.” Most chose to respond to the question of whether they believed in the greenhouse effect by speaking about completely unrelated topics, such as the personal obnoxiousness of Vivek Ramaswamy.

The GOP appears poised to make the “most disliked politician in America” its standard-bearer next year. But even with that albatross around its neck, polls give Republicans a solid chance of reclaiming the White House in 2025. Regardless, the nature of America’s two-party system all but ensures that the GOP will reclaim federal power in the not-too-distant future. So long as the world’s most powerful nation is periodically governed by a party that seems to grow more hostile to climate action the more necessary it becomes, our collective prospects for reconciling global prosperity with ecological stability will be greatly undermined.

Who Won (and Lost) the First Republican Debate