While the eyes of well over 160 million people were on the highly-anticipated interview between President Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson, the undercard debate of also-ran candidates proved very telling in its own way, often at the expense of the GOP.
With a single exception, all of the candidates onstage proved to be underwhelmingly mediocre, presenting plenty of platitudes but no clear vision for a country in desperate need of a tectonic shift in leadership. As such, all but one of the candidates should receive no higher than average marks after this performance.
Vivek Ramaswamy: A
The man who had the most to lose at the debate tonight wasn’t the Governor of Florida. It was the one and only man who has been steadily rising in the polls leading up to tonight. Despite having high expectations, he met and surpassed them in spades.
Vivek Ramaswamy openly acknowledged his dilemma that many Republican voters still might know who he is, with a lighthearted self-deprecating joke about “this skinny guy in the middle of the stage with a funny last name,” before launching into his opening remarks. This tactic served to defuse any lingering confusion over what kind of a man he truly is, and dictated his tone throughout the rest of the night: Willing to talk about serious issues, but also capable of remaining lighthearted even when the knives came out.
In many ways, Vivek felt like a stand-in for Donald Trump circa 2015, taking the most flak from rival candidates and effortlessly withstanding all of it. He laughed off multiple attacks from Christie, Pence, and Haley, often firing right back with even more devastating one-liners.
He called out the rest of his opponents as “super PAC puppets,” and when his unapologetic response to the “global warming” question was to call it a hoax and declare that he was the only candidate on the stage “who isn’t bought and paid for,” he clearly riled up the moderators so much that the entire conversation suddenly shifted: The moderators proceeded down the rest of the stage not asking the other candidates about global warming, but instead asking the question “Are you bought and paid for?” Game, set, match: Vivek Ramaswamy effortlessly changed the entire conversation with just one smooth response, laughing as all of the other candidates – as well as the moderators – were seething.
The first attack of the night was launched against Vivek by Mike Pence, quickly setting the tone of the debate with Vivek as the underdog. Poking fun at the increasingly absurd political language used by everyone else, Vivek joked that he “didn’t exactly understand Mike Pence’s comment” criticizing him on Social Security and Medicare, before saying “I’ll let you all parse it out.” Pence’s response of “I’ll go slower this time” came across as extremely condescending and thus earned requisite boos from the audience, and it only got worse from there.
When Vivek again called out the other candidates for having “their memorized, pre-prepared slogans,” Pence thought he sounded clever by asking “Was that yours, Vivek?” But, keeping it as cool as ever, Vivek simply replied with “Not really Mike, we’re gonna have fun tonight.” And that, in a nutshell, is what Vivek was on that stage, especially whenever he clashed with Mike Pence: He was the cool kid having fun while surrounded by dorks and nerds. It was, indeed, very reminiscent of then-candidate Donald Trump in 2015.
The one and only not-great moment that Vivek had was when Nikki Haley ferociously attacked him on foreign policy, screaming hysterically that he would defund our ally Israel. While Vivek had a strong response to this – pointing out that his favorite aspects of Israel were its border policies and crime policies – he made a calculated mistake by trying to respond to Haley while the bought-and-paid-for audience was still roaring obsessively over her pro-Israel platitudes, drowning out his own words. It would have done him well to take a page from Donald Trump’s book and point out the audience’s abundance of donors and special interests.
Nevertheless, while fighting off all of these attacks and more, Vivek at the same time articulated the clearest vision of anyone on the stage: He painted a picture of an America that is broken right down to its very soul, and that this identity crisis is a greater threat than any particular policy battle. He excelled at giving specific, solutions-based answers, and then flawlessly tying them into broader existential issues without coming across as pivoting. On the crime and homelessness issue, he vowed to bring back mental institutions, while at the same time pointing out that the rise of mental illness is indicative of the American people “lacking meaning” in their lives due to a national identity crisis, “a time when faith, family, and so many other things have disappeared.”
He did it again on the education question, after first acknowledging the laundry list of federal agencies that he would abolish. After reaffirming his support for parents having greater authority in what their children learn, and which schools they go to, he succinctly pointed out that “education policy also begins in the family,” and that “the nuclear family is the greatest form of governance known to mankind.” As such, he said, the breakdown of the nuclear family is indicative of a broader breakdown of American society and “national identity” itself.
Perhaps most powerfully of all was the simple visuals that Vivek produced that night. On two of the most controversial questions asked of the candidates – “Would you support Trump as the nominee if he is convicted,” and “Would you end funding to Ukraine” – Vivek was immediately the first one to raise his hand. On the Trump question, the other candidates then lazily followed Vivek’s example, one by one. On the Ukraine question, he was the only candidate to raise his hand, to thunderous applause.
Expect Vivek’s numbers to rise dramatically.
Tim Scott: C+
With reports swirling that establishment donors are considering Tim Scott as the next anti-Trump alternative after DeSantis, the South Carolina Senator needed a stronger-than-average performance. He didn’t give it.
Scott was the first candidate to attempt the holier-than-thou “above the fray” approach when he derided the clashes between Vivek and other candidates as “being childish” and “not helpful to the American people”…before proceeding to squander this moment with a boring answer on America’s “carbon footprint.”
Scott also caved to the narrative on January 6th by stating that he believed “Mike Pence did the right thing” on January 6th, before going for a cheap applause line saying that he would fire Merrick Garland as Attorney General on the first day of his presidency. The only issue with that? Garland would already automatically be fired on inauguration day, as would the rest of the Biden Cabinet, solely by virtue of Scott’s hypothetical ascension to the presidency. So it was a moot point.
The one strong moment Scott had was when he, along with Pence, took the most pro-life stance on the stage. In stark contrast to Nikki Haley’s declaration that the matter should be left up to the states, Scott called out states like California legalizing abortion up to the moment of birth as “ethically, morally wrong.” He managed to be better than the rest, but not much better.
Most telling of all, his closing statement proved to be extremely out of touch: “The American Dream is real, it is alive, and it is healthy.” This not only stood in contrast to the message of other, stronger candidates like Vivek painting a picture of an America in decline, but it clashed with the dire conditions represented by the moderators’ line of questioning. There is a time for feel-good platitudes, and this debate was not one of them.
Ron DeSantis: C
Surprisingly enough, the awkward Governor of Florida didn’t have any truly disastrous moments as some might have expected. And yet he didn’t have any standout moments either: No zingers, no memorable clashes with other candidates, and no powerful answers. He just gave focus group-tested one-liners, made an obsessive amount of references to the fact that he is Governor of Florida, and could be seen, more than once, shamefully waiting to see how others would answer first before finally taking a stand.
Perhaps most telling of all was DeSantis’ repeated refusal to answer basic questions, to the point that even the moderators became frustrated with him.
On abortion, when asked “how would you sell the heartbeat bill” banning abortions after 6 weeks, DeSantis sloppily pivoted to reminding the audience that he got re-elected, claiming that he would “sell the biggest election victory in Florida.” When Bret Baier pressed him further, asking once again if he would sign a federal version of the heartbeat bill, DeSantis punted once more, simply saying “I’m gonna stand on the side of life.” Where others took clear stances, for better or for worse, DeSantis remained annoyingly on the fence.
The same goes for the most contentious question of the night: Whether or not any of the candidates would pardon President Trump of the bogus charges he currently faces. DeSantis relied once again on a focus group-tested line, declaring that “we need to end the weaponization of the federal government.” Baier once again had to openly remind him that he was not answering the question.
An exasperated DeSantis sighed and then tried to respond with another slick one-liner: “This isn’t about January 6th, 2021, this is about January 20th, 2025,” to which he received a smattering of applause. He then re-established his anti-Trump and anti-base bona fides by declaring that Mike Pence “did his duty” and “I’ve got no beef with him” over his actions on January 6th, before asking, in a clearly annoyed tone of voice, if they were going to continue “re-litigating” events of the past rather than talk about policy.
Baier then proceeded to deliver perhaps the most punishing takedown of the entire night: “We’ve spent an hour talking policy. Trump is beating you by 30 points in the polls, so yes, he is a factor in this race.”
As his poll numbers continue to tumble, with no sign yet of the ground approaching, DeSantis needed a knockout performance to reverse his fortunes. Instead, he was neither memorably bad nor memorably strong: He was perfectly mediocre, and thus forgettable, which is arguably even worse.
Nikki Haley: C-
Haley’s opening remarks showed a surprising amount of potential, as she was the first candidate to launch an attack on the GOP as a whole for its failure to prevent our current situation. However, she then ruined it by immediately attacking President Trump. This proved to be the first of several instances where she would have a strong moment but then turn around and shove her foot into her mouth, most often due to her anti-Trump stance: Her declaration that “Donald Trump is the most disliked politician in America” told everyone all that they need to know about where she truly stands.
The only true strategy Haley had onstage was to play the identity politics game, more so than anyone else. She frequently had to remind the audience that she is the only woman in the race, including a forced and eyeroll-inducing Margaret Thatcher quote. But any cred she might have earned for playing the woman card was revoked when she spoke up on abortion; completely caving to the Left’s rhetoric by suggesting that conservatives want to throw women in jail or have them killed for having abortions, and even indirectly attacking the Dobbs decision as the result of “unelected justices deciding something this personal,” she came across as the most pro-choice candidate on the stage.
Her biggest moment of the night was her attack on Vivek Ramaswamy, and all this did was highlight a deep and fundamental divide between the base and the party establishment when it comes to foreign policy. Declaring that Vivek would “hand Ukraine to Russia and feed Taiwan to China,” she unapologetically took the Neoconservative stance of asserting that “Ukraine is the first line of defense for us” in some imaginary Cold War 2 against Russia.
When Vivek called out how she and others with the same mentality have repeatedly dragged our nation into endless no-win wars, and even cracked a joke about Haley auditioning for a “future job on the board of Raytheon,” a clearly-rattled Haley changed the subject by claiming that Vivek would defund Israel. Her shrill voice reaching levels that nearly broke the sound barrier, she went on a breathless, unhinged tirade about how funding Israel is essential, suggesting that it would be the gravest sin imaginable to suggest defunding it.
While Nikki Haley might have briefly won the thundering support of the in-studio audience of donors and special interests, the viewing audience at home saw a completely different picture. They saw a candidate for President of the United States giving the single most passionate display of the night not over a domestic issue, such as crime, immigration, education, and other things that affect all of us directly. They saw a candidate show more concern for a foreign nation than our own. Even a proud Zionist, such as yours truly, couldn’t help but admit that the optics of this misdirected passion were not what Haley thought they would be.
And in that sense, Nikki Haley solidified herself as the dominant candidate in the Neoconservative lane. She can claim that 3% of the GOP base for herself after that debate.
Chris Christie: D
The former New Jersey governor’s strategy has always been to take up as much of the “NeverTrump” lane as possible. In that, he absolutely succeeded. But the uselessness of this doomed strategy was made evident every time Christie made another obligatory declaration of his hatred of President Trump, receiving the loudest and longest boos of the night when he accused President Trump of “normalizing conduct” that he considered to be “beneath the President of the United States.”
As the audience continued mercilessly booing and jeering him, he impotently whined that “booing is allowed, but it doesn’t change the truth.” Indeed, he is correct in that sense: Nothing can change the truth that he has no more than 2% of the GOP base’s support.
The only other highlight for Christie was when he appeared to land the strongest blow against Vivek by comparing him to ChatGPT. However, he then waddled right into an even bigger trap by comparing Vivek to the electoral juggernaut Barack Obama. Vivek seized on this moment, first by acknowledging that Obama won two massive elections, and then by cracking a joke about Christie’s now-infamous bipartisan hug with Obama on the eve of the 2012 election, which many have cited as a major factor in the Democrat’s re-election that year.
Indeed, it was Vivek who perfectly summarized Christie’s campaign when he described it as “based on vengeance and grievance” against Donald Trump, before cheekily lifting a line from DeSantis’ leaked debate prep by suggesting that Christie was really trying out for a spot on MSNBC.
If Christie couldn’t even take down a complete political newcomer like Vivek, then he has no more of a chance against Donald Trump than he did in 2016.
Mike Pence: D-
Pence’s entire performance throughout the night was the clear result of a poor combination of his calm and mild persona with an attempt at combative politics. He frequently came across as awkward, slow, and stilted in many of his deliveries. From his long, awkward pauses and occasional stutters during his opening remarks, to numerous attempts to cut into exchanges that didn’t involve him (only to be shut down by the moderators), his performance reeked of a man desperately trying to recover from the humiliation he received weeks earlier from Tucker Carlson, which still bothers him to this day.
Perhaps that animosity explains Pence’s particularly strange desire throughout the night to go after Vivek – someone who embodies much of the same beliefs as the former Fox host – more frequently than any other candidate on that stage. From his first shot across the bow at Vivek over Social Security and Medicare, to his lightning round answer that “we don’t need a president who’s too old, and we also don’t need a president who’s too young, either,” which drew overwhelming boos and even had the moderators admitting that the response was clearly directed at Vivek.
His statements were also rife with contradictions, from declaring that he was “proud of the accomplishments of the Trump/Pence Administration,” to poorly justifying why he wouldn’t pardon President Trump. He also gave a boring and somewhat confusing answer on the crime and homelessness question by suggesting that the solution was to abolish the Department of Education.
On the heated Ukraine debate, Pence took the Neoconservative stance that we must fund Ukraine in order to prevent some hypothetical Russian march across all of Europe, suggesting that an approach of reducing foreign aid in order to focus more closely on domestic problems was “a small presumption of the United States.” When Vivek fired right back, Pence then made the bold claim that “if we do the giveaway to Putin that you want to, he’ll roll over a NATO border.” Vivek quickly refuted this with a very simple “newsflash: The USSR does not exist anymore.” Pence was then completely upstaged in the self-righteousness of the NeoCon Department by Nikki Haley.
And in the most out-of-touch moment for the former Vice President, he addressed Vivek by claiming that “we don’t have an identity crisis.” When Vivek called him out once more for stale, “Morning in America”-type platitudes that simply do not reflect the “cold cultural civil war” in which we currently find our nation, Pence confirmed his accusations by repeating yet another irrelevant one-liner: “We need a government as good as its people.” Vivek effortlessly deconstructed this response with an answer that would probably be shared by most of the viewing audience: “I don’t know what that slogan even means.”
The one strong moment that Pence had was when he, along with Tim Scott, took the most pro-life stance of anyone else on the stage. He even called out Nikki Haley for her absurd pro-choice rhetoric which might as well have been ripped straight from the talking points of Planned Parenthood. His best line was to say, correctly, that “consensus is the opposite of leadership,” reaffirming that abortion is “not a states’ issue, it’s a moral issue.” When Haley tried to counter that a federal abortion ban would never pass since it could not get the votes of at least 60 senators, Pence reminded her that 70% of the American people support such a ban, and that’s the vote that matters the most.
But at the end of it all, the most memorable aspect of Pence’s performance was his numerous clashes with Vivek. And every single exchange only made the newcomer look better, while the career politician kept diminishing himself further and further.
Asa Hutchinson: F
Hutchinson suffered greatly from the fact that the anti-Trump shtick, whilst already deeply unpopular with the base, was done even better by Christie. This already-small lane was already completely filled by the former New Jersey Governor, with no room for the former Arkansas Governor. The tone of his entire performance was dictated by his opening remarks, where, upon declaring that he would “reduce the federal non-defense workforce by 10%,” he paused for a moment and waited for applause. He never got it.
Doug Burgum: F-
It should come as no surprise that the lowest-polling candidate remained at the bottom of the totem pole by the end of the night. At the very least, Hutchinson could stand out by making his anti-Trump stance clear. Burgum was completely and utterly forgettable; most simply, the quintessential example of an “also-ran.”
His best moment was the joke during his opening remarks about taking the phrase “break a leg” a bit too literally. It was all downhill from there. Like Hutchinson, he too expected a big applause moment when, talking about the 10th Amendment in relation to abortion, he held up a pocket-sized copy of the Constitution: But all he got was crickets. Even after the debate, he will most likely remain the one candidate to which most voters simply say: “Who?”
The Real Winners
Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson: A+
Of course, at the end of it all, there was truly only one winner; or in this case, two winners. Trump got to completely upstage his rivals with a show that was all about him, while Tucker got to similarly usurp his former employer by absolutely crushing them in the ratings race. President Trump reaffirmed his spot as the dominant Republican candidate, while Tucker solidified his reputation as the most popular conservative commentator in the nation.
But even putting aside the substance of the interview, the most important thing to remember is the stark contrast between the two completely different spectacles. The real reason President Trump and Tucker Carlson won the night wasn’t because of views, or poll numbers, or audience applause. It was because the two men more comprehensively provided a clear vision for the American Right moving forward than the eight candidates, two moderators, and hundreds of lemmings in the in-studio audience.
Most simply: The Trump-less debate was like a bizarre flashback to an older period of time that is, somehow, even less appealing than the current age. With the sole exception of Vivek, the pre-prepared presentations, the practiced performances, and the pointless platitudes given by all of the candidates more closely resembled a primary debate from 2008 and 2012, rather than the more lively matches of 2016.
The issues that were discussed, and the answers that were given, largely avoided the massive existential issues about which most voters are truly concerned. It felt less like a fierce debate about the greatest threats to America today, and more like another policy-based discussion hosted by anointed policy wonks at any one of the scores of nameless D.C.-based think tanks.
If the polls are any indication, the Republican base is overwhelmingly through with the party of John McCain and Mitt Romney, as represented by seven of the eight candidates in the debate. They are more ready than ever before to continue on with the America First agenda started by, and carried on by, Donald J. Trump.