Entertainment was hard to come by at Wednesday night’s Republican presidential debate. But to the extent that there was anything to savor, it came in the form of the attacks on Vivek Ramaswamy at the hands of Mike Pence, Nikki Haley and Chris Christie. What they needed to accomplish was to bury what was left of Ron DeSantis. Instead, they were so enraged by Ramaswamy that they focused their fire on him.
Ramaswamy was glib, smug, rude and arrogant. He also mouthed far-right talking points in a way that would do Donald Trump proud, coming out foursquare for everything bad, from coal to Russia. Although all eight candidates tried to duck a question about climate change (Haley was a wishy-washy exception), only Ramaswamy declared it to be a “hoax.” He alone would cut off U.S. aid to Ukraine, though DeSantis was heading in that direction.
Did Ramaswamy help or hurt himself? Who knows? I thought New York Times columnist David French put it well: “Everything I dislike about him, MAGA loves, and he looked more like Trump’s heir than DeSantis did.” Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo called Ramaswamy a “cocky little shit,” which wasn’t quite accurate: he’s actually pretty tall.
In case Ramaswamy is new to you, you might want to check out this profile in The New Yorker, written by Sheelah Kolhatkar. Ramaswamy, who made his fortune in biotech, has moved to the extreme right in recent years, something that hasn’t exactly endeared him to those who were once close to him. Kolhatkar writes:
I asked Ramaswamy if his burgeoning reputation as a conservative firebrand had taken a personal toll. He chose his words carefully. A family member no longer spoke to him, and he’d been ghosted by a close friend. Although he’d forged new relationships with conservatives, none of the connections had turned into friendships. “I feel like the public advocacy, or whatever you call what I’ve been doing in the last couple of years, has eroded more friendships than new friendships made up for it,” he said.
Being shunned because of your principles is one thing. Being shunned because of ambition is something else.
So who won? I thought the big winner was President Biden. Trump, too, I imagine, since he continues to dominate the Republican field and did not take part in Wednesday’s free-for-all. Other than that, I’d say Pence was the winner, sort of; he managed to get credit for standing up to Trump on Jan. 6 without being booed too loudly, as Chris Christie was, and he came across as a normal candidate — that is, if your idea of normal is an extremist who wants a nationwide ban on abortion. Another Times columnist, Ross Douthat, said of Pence’s performance: “Moral clarity, debating chops, a message frozen in amber in 1985 and a visceral hatred for Vivek Ramaswamy: It won’t get him the nomination but it made for some of the better theater of the night.” James Pindell of The Boston Globe gave Pence an A-plus.
A lot of people thought Haley did well, too. She projected as independent and even somewhat moderate, criticizing Trump for running up the debt. You’d think might hurt her chances of being chosen as Trump’s running mate, but she’s proven over and over that she’ll be whatever she thinks she needs to be.