It wasn’t the Fantastic Four on stage but the squabbling verged on the epic as the quartet of Republican presidential candidates sans Mr. Big faced off in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The stakes were higher for the fourth and final GOP debate that Donald Trump ducked and didn’t want to take place in the first place. But his baleful spirit hovered over it.
Both Florida governor Ron DeSantis and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy looked like Trump Mini-Mes, dressed in the full Trumpian regalia — blue suit, white shirt and iridescent red tie. DeSantis talked about using the military to end the drug menace while Ramaswamy fantasized about wiping out the “administrative state” overnight. In Ramaswamy’s telling, the president is a kind of dictator who can blithely ignore Congress and do as he pleases.
Ukraine, the dividing line in the GOP, triggered some of the most vituperative exchanges. While a composed Nikki Haley watched, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and Ramaswamy traded blows. Christie called Ramaswamy an “obnoxious blowhard.” Ramaswamy countered that Christie was a “toxic neocon.” At another point he held up a sign declaring, “Haley = corrupt.”
It’s amazing that the term “neocon” continues to serve as a synonym for incompetence. How many neocons are even left? But Ramaswamy, who was intent on disparaging Haley, concocted a bill of indictment, ranging from the Iraq War to Ukraine, which he wants to hand over to Russian president Vladimir Putin on a silver platter. Americans, Ramaswamy declared, were lied to about WMDs in Iraq; now they were being lied to about Ukraine.
What about a Muslim ban? Haley waffled and talked about being “careful.” It was word-salad time for Haley who said that China was a problem, too. DeSantis warned about Europe “committing suicide.” Ramaswamy complained about the illegal aliens already in America.
The clear star of the debate was Christie who squared off against both DeSantis, whom he regards with disdain, and Ramaswamy with derision. One of his strongest moments came when Ramaswamy offered him the opportunity to run interference for Haley.
Earlier, Christie battened on the query about whether Trump would be a dictator, mocking his fellow debaters for their refusal to issue anything other than mild demurs about Trump. “Father Time is undefeated,” DeSantis said about Trump’s advancing age. (My guess is that Trump, if he watched the slugfest, was amused by Christie’s attacks but infuriated by the suggestion that he’s become a senescent dotard.) Ramaswamy, by contrast, refused to utter any opprobrious remarks, praising Trump for at lease seeking to dismantle the Deep State. No one has his eyes more securely fastened on the VP slot with Trump than Ramaswamy, who enunciated his grand plan to emancipate America from China towards the end of the debate.
What president did the candidates look to as a model? For Christie it was all WWRD — what would Reagan do? Haley played it even safer by invoking Washington and Lincoln. DeSantis hopped on the Calvin Coolidge bandwagon, the original foe of big government. “We can learn a lot from Calvin Coolidge,” he said. Ramaswamy looked to Thomas Jefferson before declaring climate change “a hoax” and “a new religion.” But after the dreadful beating he suffered at Christie’s hands, his remarks sounded more than a little desperate. The quartet of Trump antagonists seems set to become a trio.