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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Trump Wins Again

Nothing that happened in Miami changed the race.

Republican Presidential Debate
Credit: getty images/The Washington Post

One of the great cinematic artifacts of the Bush era and the Global War on Terror, Burn After Reading, concludes with a CIA supervisor and one of his analysts musing on the bloody, stupid series of events they have just witnessed. “What have we learned, Palmer?” the supervisor asks.

“I don’t know, sir,” Palmer replies.

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“I don’t f***ing know either,” the supervisor says. “I guess we learned not to do it again.”

This is also the main insight to be derived amid the early-morning wreckage after last night’s Republican presidential debate, hosted by NBC News at Miami. Who watches this stuff? I’m getting paid. What’s anyone else’s excuse? You’d hope we’d have learned not to do it again. (Unfortunately, the next debate is already scheduled for Tuscaloosa on December 6.)

The presenters and the candidates were well aware of the crushing futility of it all. Lester Holt began by asking why the presumptive candidate, Donald Trump, should not be the candidate, despite his prohibitive lead for the nomination and polls showing him surprisingly dangerous in the general contest. 

Nimrata “Nikki” Haley sounded less shrewish than she had in the first two debates; Ron DeSantis sounded marginally less like an off-track bookie. (Has somebody been coaching him on how not to talk at the top of his register? Did he start smoking? In either case, well done.) Yet neither of them had me hot and bothered to go out and exercise the franchise. Tim Scott, the last pleasant non-entity standing on a stage that once also held Doug Burgum and Asa Hutchinson, grew to fill the space: He seemed twice as pleasant and less of an entity than ever. Chris Christie did not grow, we imagine to his doctor’s relief. Vivek Ramaswamy also appeared to be his usual size (compact) and mien (feisty).

Ramaswamy remains the only participant in these things who is dedicated to giving the audience—which, even on a Wednesday night after baseball season, must be composed disproportionately of jaded and anhedonic journalists—a good time. He was in full mud-wrestling mode, interrupting moderators and other candidates, saying he was going to tell viewers things that nobody else would tell them, and generally getting into the spirit of the thing. He told the moderators that they rigged the election and invited Ronna McDaniel onto the stage to resign and made fun of Haley and DeSantis for wearing high heels. (DeSantis looked down at his feet after this snipe—somebody in his office should tell him not to do that.) He scolded Haley because her daughter uses TikTok, earning boos from the audience and the former ambassador’s retort, “You’re just scum.” That’s great TV!

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Yet you can’t exactly say it’s edifying. So who had a good night? Elbridge Colby had a good night, I guess. DeSantis smirkily invoked the “strategy of denial” by name while dodging a question from Hugh Hewitt about how many ships and of what types we need to build to get our fleet capacity up to snuff, and where to build them. Scott echoed Colby’s persistent complaints about the collapse of the defense industrial base while similarly dodging. 

The answer to the first part, by the way, is that we need a fleet of about 400 if you agree with the Navy—this was the number I could remember off the top of my head—and about 500 if you agree with Mark Esper. If you think Taiwan is going to be the disco hosting the party, which the candidates more or less assented to, you need to build frigates. (Christie, the only person who named a kind of ship, made an argument for nuclear submarines that seemed improvised, if competently so.) As to where to build them—good question. The destruction of the shipyards of the two great Western maritime powers, the U.K. and the U.S., is perhaps the most shameful legacy of the free trade era. There’s even a song

Nevertheless, particulars aside, it is an encouraging sign that the GOP consensus has shifted towards containing China and doing something about the shambolic state of American industry. Less encouraging was the gung-ho attitude toward direct military intervention in the Middle East. Scott and Haley invoked the recent attacks on American troops in Syria as a justification for direct military action against Iran. Only DeSantis cautiously floated a version of the obvious question: Why do we have troops in Syria? Of all our little foreign adventures, this one has made the least sense; it doesn’t make more sense now. Perhaps, Palmer, we haven’t learned not to do it again.

There is one candidate who has actually tried to reduce our direct military involvement in the Middle East. He even tried to remove American troops in Syria, although he was stymied by slow-walking generals. He was not on the stage at Miami; why should he have been? Donald J. Trump, 45th president of the United States of America, remains the winner. Nothing that happened in Miami suggests otherwise.