It’s only been a few days since the first GOP debate, but already the kettle of journalist-vultures have gorged themselves on the carrion, their frenzied wake having picked the corpses bare. Alas, this feeding famishes the craving it seeks to satisfy, so we are left with sticky piles of bones, gobbets of contradictory opinion, and precious little enlightenment. We all know that when it comes to the so-called “rule of law” in this country, “the process is the punishment.” When it comes to spectacles like the Fox News-sponsored GOP debate, the process seems to be the point.
It is, I am sure you will agree, rather a pointless point, but the very pointlessness of the exercise was clearly the cherished goal. Why else would all those producers and technicians and lovingly coiffed and pressed interlocutors Bret Baier and whatever the bleached-blonde Fox mannequin who sat next to him was called: why serve up all that fatuousness just to hear them hector the candidates with a smorgasbord of silly questions followed by the admonition: “You have 30 seconds” or “You have one minute” to answer?
I happen to have Harry Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided on my desk at the moment. It is an account of the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. Each of the seven debates lasted about three hours. One candidate would open with a 60 minute statement, to which the other would answer with a 90-minute response. The first speaker ended with a 30-minute rejoinder. I am trying to picture what Abraham Lincoln’s response to the instruction “You have 30 seconds to reply” would be. I can’t really do it, but I suspect it would be unprintable.
As I have said elsewhere, I suspect that future historians will draw a line under this snazzy pseudo-debate, marking it down as the beginning of the end of the entire genre. Given the changes in how people get their news today—not from television, mostly—this terminus a quo was probably foreordained anyway. But it was confirmed by the simultaneous broadcast of Tucker Carlson’s interview with the only serious Republican candidate for president, Donald Trump.
The bean counters tell us that about 12.4 million people watched the FoxNews debated; that’s down from about 25 million back when Trump participated in 2020 and 2016. It took only a few hours before Tucker’s interview with Trump had racked up more than 220 million views.
I am not quite sure what that number means, other than many more people tuned into Tucker than digested what Asa Hutchinson or Chris Christie or Tim Scott or Doug what’s-his-name from North (or was it South?) Dakota had to say.
Opinions vary about the performances of the A-list participants in this B-list event. I thought the brightest, if also the glibbest, light was shone by Vivek Ramaswamy, who was eager, articulate, passionate, and well-informed on the issues. One might agree or disagree with the particulars of his remarks, but that comes with the territory.
Nikki Haley took pointed issue with some of Ramaswamy’s points, especially on the war in Ukraine, and in general she gave a strong performance. So did Ron DeSantis, who as front-runner among the also ran, probably had the most to lose that night. He made no gaffes, but neither did he pull ahead of the pack. Those vultures I opened with have pretty much picked him and his campaign clean.
Melissa Mackenzie said that former Vice President Mike Pence “came off as a constipated church lady” and a “raging hypocritical one, at that.” That’s about right, even if it is unfair to constipated church ladies and raging hypocrites, some of whom can be quite amusing. Has anyone anywhere ever accused Mike Pence of having a sense of humor? He is too busy engaged in what T. S. Eliot described as “the endless struggle to think well of [him]self” to stoop to anything like humor.
At some point early on in the faux-debate—it was more like a square dance, really—the geniuses at Fox played a snippet of Oliver Anthony’s “Rich Men North of Richmond,” the plaintive song that took the internet by storm a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately, Anthony was not pleased by this effort to co-opt his pointed working-class lament (though apparently he gave permission for Fox to use the clip). “I wrote that song about those people,” he said.
His larger objection was to the “weaponization” of the song in the interests of a political agenda—“conservative” or “liberal,” “Republican” or “Democrat,” it didn’t matter. It’s the same establishment, the same Leviathan, that is supporting the agenda of dependency enforced by the Washington Welfare Conglomerate whose rhetoric is all about helping the disadvantaged but whose real aim is to keep the disadvantaged disadvantaged while simultaneously increasing their number.
And this brings me to the positive or pragmatic part of my column. Several pundits have suggested that the GOP debate was at least in part a talent scouting exhibition for people who say they are running for president but who are in fact running for vice president or a cabinet post or some other preferment.
This isn’t true of the virulent anti-Trumpers on the stage—Asa Hutchinson, for example, or Chris Christie, or even Mike Pence. It probably isn’t true of Ron DeSantis, either, though it might have been had he managed his campaign differently. I think it may be true, though, for some of the others: for Tim Scott, for example, possibly Nikki Haley, and possibly Vivek Ramaswamy.
It is Vivek, I think, who has the most promise. But what would he do in a second Trump administration? He is too independent, too effervescent, to waste on a traditional cabinet post. It would be pointless, for example, to make him Secretary of Commerce, not withstanding his entrepreneurial talent.
No, I think Trump should think big when it comes to Ramaswamy. A new post should be created for him, a sort of super-sanitary enterprise charged with world’s biggest drainage project: siphoning off the huge and mephitic reservoirs that constitute the Washington swamp. It is a a gargantuan project, akin as I have said, to the Herculean task of cleansing the Augean stables.
Part of being president is being an effective talent scout. Trump made plenty of mistakes on that score the first time around. If he has another bite at the apple, he needs to think creatively and pick the very best people for the very hard job that saving the Republic will entail. Making Vivek Ramaswamy Czar in charge of swamp drainage and bureaucracy busting would be an extraordinary bold and energizing start.
I offer the idea free and for nothing.