What’s the point of these debates?

Is this supposed to help the GOP?

Republican presidential candidates walk on stage during the FOX Business Republican Primary Debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on September 27, 2023 (Getty Images)
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Welcome to Thunderdome everyone, where the top question on our minds after last night’s craptastic showing from the Reagan Library in Simi Valley is: what is the actual point of these debates, and are they actually designed to help the GOP, or just do favors for its partisan enemies?

The answer isn’t as obvious as you’d like to think. Surely the point of debates is to offer people a view of the Republican Party as engaged, serious, compelling and caring about the priorities of the American people. That’s all expressions of mood as opposed to policy…

Welcome to Thunderdome everyone, where the top question on our minds after last night’s craptastic showing from the Reagan Library in Simi Valley is: what is the actual point of these debates, and are they actually designed to help the GOP, or just do favors for its partisan enemies?

The answer isn’t as obvious as you’d like to think. Surely the point of debates is to offer people a view of the Republican Party as engaged, serious, compelling and caring about the priorities of the American people. That’s all expressions of mood as opposed to policy or ideology, but we’re not getting any of the latter or the former to this point. Instead, this looks like a party squabbling over the little things, like whether Vivek Ramaswamy is a hypocrite for joining TikTok, whether Nikki Haley overspent on curtains or if Ron DeSantis tried to spin the silver linings of slavery. And if the candidates had engaged in the gimmickry of the debate instead of rejecting it, today we’d also have the image of all of these folks holding up pieces of paper with the name of an opponent on it they’d like to “vote off the island.” Whose brilliant idea was that?

Overall, the winners from this debate: Ron DeSantis, for coming through another debate unscathed, rejecting the stupid moderator tricks and performing generally like a front-runner; Nikki Haley for holding her own, though it might increase both her positives and negatives given the scrappy nature of her exchanges; and Chris Christie for telling Vivek to put his hand down. Doug Burgum actually did well too but will anyone care? Pence is out of it, Vivek seemed to be more neutered from his first performance and Tim Scott got a ton of airtime, but it’s hard to see what he did with it — and his attacks on Haley went flat. The spin room take is that Vivek is more humble, which is exactly what tall-haired Uriah Heep would like you to think.

But of course, the real winner is the guy who wasn’t there: Susan Page at USA Today has the right of it. The more these debates go on without anyone hitting a grand slam, outlining an alternative message on Bidenomics, the border and foreign policy that hits with the viewers, the more likely it is that Donald Trump never joins the debate stage fray. It’s still a risky proposition to avoid these debates because Trump has become confined to courthouse appearances, and his dominant performance in past debates are fading away in people’s memory. The impressive show of Trump showing up and swatting away Chris Christie with the back of his hand is something that would only solidify his support. But he’s content to do alternate programming and just wait it out… even if the UAW gave him a chilly reception.

Listen to today’s podcast for more debate reactions, and subscribe to get every episode of Thunderdome today!

WTF with that lefty moderator?

No offense to Stuart Varney, who I’m a big fan of (and not just because I’m on his show every week), but it was very odd to have a debate with two-thirds of the moderators being non-Americans. Ilia Calderón of Univision is best known as Jorge Ramos’s co-host, and she showed her partisanship throughout the debate, with questions that were no different from what you might get at MSNBC. Juan P. Villasmil writes at The Spectator:

There are are hundreds of great Hispanic journalists out there that have good pronunciation, went to college in the US and don’t hate Republicans. The Colombian-born journalist might have the wholesome accent we all love, concocting the most mellifluous of words, such as “banrubsi,” (bankruptcy) “gobernohr” (governor) and “protec,” but the real problem with her suitability for a GOP debate is what she thinks, not what she looks or sounds like.

One obvious red flag is that the “pioneering Afro-Latina news anchor,” as MSNBC puts it, wrote a book titled My Time to Speak: Reclaiming Ancestry and Confronting Race. Were that not enough, she also rose to prominence after winning an Emmy award for interviewing a Ku Klux Klan leader in 2017. After being threatened by the North Carolinian hate group head, she juiced up the experience, drawing comparisons between former president Donald Trump and the white supremacist organization.

With this in mind, her performance shouldn’t have been surprising: of course she was going to make the debate all about immigration, race and extremism, all of which are things that Hispanic conservatives and independents do not lose sleep over as much as she does. 

Not surprisingly, she brought up the DACA question, leading former vice president Mike Pence to refuse to answer a question that any Republican who knows the state of the party would have easily answered. Additionally, she asked a series of other Latino-specific, or should we say, liberal Latinx-specific, questions that produced answers that will have made thousands of watchers cringe, for example the fact that Senator Tim Scott boasted having “the only Hispanic female chief of staff in the Senate.” At many points throughout the debate, you had to wonder: had these people forgotten about their voter base?

It’s easy to understand the urge to appeal to Latinos. It is smart politics, as they have a large presence in many swing states. And there are intelligent ways to do so, such as using more geo-targeted ads in Spanish, like the ones we started to see in South Florida in 2020. Additionally, there are issues that could definitely be emphasized to reach Latinos, like policy vis-à-vis Latin America and religious freedom.

For those who haven’t been paying attention, Hispanics have been running to the right in the last few years. With Trump and his fixation on immigration, the GOP has attracted more, not fewer, Hispanics. After all, the Hispanics that matter in winning an election — the Hispanics that can vote — care about much more than immigration and identity politics. In fact, those two issues annoy a vast portion of Latinos as much as they annoy white voters. 

If Republicans writ large want to win over Latinos, as odd as it may sound to some, they have to learn some lessons from Donald Trump and his no-BS attitude. His pandering, for what it’s worth, was transparent and therefore somewhat refreshing. He doesn’t need elaborate pro-Latino lines to attract voters, and he doesn’t do a lot of it from the national stage. 

Gavin Newsom comes to the party

The governor of California showed up to the debate, as is his wont:

“That there was no takeaway. I mean, this is a nothingburger you will forget. In the next seventy-two hours, none of you will be talking about this debate… Honestly, the only thing that was a little bit chilling and strange was the Mike Pence sex joke, which I’m still struggling to get through.”

But Newsom actually had something interesting to say in reaction to a question from Sean Hannity, almost an admission that Joe Biden is mentally in decline and that he’s ready to stand in his stead:

“I know the truth,” began Hannity. “In your heart, in your mind, you want this! But you have basically gone on a media tour sucking up to Joe Biden, and you know he’s a cognitive mess. You know it!”

While playing the part of the loyal surrogate and party man, Newsom appeared to slyly acknowledge the premise of Hannity’s dig at the incumbent president.

“I also know he’s got an extraordinary record to run on, and I couldn’t be more proud-” he replied.

“Oh yeah? Really? How’s his record on the border?” asked Hannity.

“By the way, objectively, objectively, he was the winner tonight. No doubt about it,” answered Newsom. “That’s not spin! These guys identified problems, and Biden has actually not only identified solutions, he’s gotten bipartisan deals to begin the process of implementing those.”

More from Semafor:

Gavin Newsom made an impression. One of the most interesting elements of Wednesday night came from someone watching the debate offstage nearby. California governor Gavin Newsom’s appearance at the debate on behalf of the Biden campaign injected an element of uncertainty into the event, bailing out reporters losing interest in a stagnant presidential race with an absentee front-runner.

Clearly, the political media was interested: Newsom sat down for what one aide said was nearly a dozen interviews in the lead-up to Wednesday’s contest, and was the star attraction in the spin room before the debate. He mocked the Republican field, calling them the junior varsity candidates, defended Biden, and taunted Ron DeSantis, saying he only agreed to an upcoming debate with the California governor because DeSantis is flailing in the polls. And he sparred with Sean Hannity, telling his Fox News audience to Google record oil production under Biden.

The Thunderdome take: it is increasingly likely that Newsom is shifting to the center for 2024, not 2028.

One more thing

It sure does seem like people are just over the surprise effect of a former president getting indicted for anything, as Freddy Gray notes in reaction to the latest court victory for Letitia James: “The Trump shows rolls on. The same, now familiar scenes play out. Trump rails against the ‘DERANGED’ justice system. ‘The widespread, radical attack against me, my family and my supporters has now devolved to new, un-American depths,’ he stated last night on Truth Social. His supporters rally around the MAGA flag, his campaign launches another fundraising appeal and his lead in the Republican polls continues to grow.”

But there’s an aspect to this that seems to be slowly dawning on Republicans, though perhaps not at the pace necessary to prevent Trump’s likely nomination: with every legal challenge, the risks of conviction grow, and the ramifications of a felony conviction among Independent voters is real and severely damaging. Polls have consistently shown that a conviction for Trump effectively ends his ability to function as a general election candidate, and that Independent voters peel away in droves if such a decision comes down. So it’s in the interests of Democrats to time that conviction as carefully as possible: after Trump has won the nomination, perhaps even after the Republican National Convention, but well before the 2024 election actually takes place.

The point is to make a conviction happen too late for the GOP to choose anyone else, and bet on that to make the difference. If voters view that as crooked and underhanded, well, that’s a risk the Democrats are willing to take.