Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Will We Never Be Free?

Another round of tedious GOP ritual combat shouldn’t distract from where the real action is happening.

Credit: Wangkun Jia

Sequels are always worse, even when the original is pretty dire. Vivek Ramaswamy defined the last Republican presidential debate by declaring a “dark moment” in America. In some way, he also captured the spirit of last night’s performance when he was reduced to agitated and jabbering cross-talk by Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina.

Scott had a good night at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library at Simi Valley, California, but not so good that it redeemed the futility of the whole exercise. Same for Doug Burgum, the governor of North Dakota. (Burgum is the only politician I’ve ever heard speak coherently on a debate stage about the underlying systemic madness of the American health insurance system.) Ramaswamy, the last debate’s winner and so last night’s whipping boy, did not have a good night. Nikki Haley, shouty and humorless, had a bad night, but not so bad that it was worth staying up late. 


Also, Ron DeSantis was on the stage. Remember him? He’s still running for president. I know! Crazy!

At the beginning of this cycle, I argued that these people aren’t actually running for president—well, Chris Christie and Mike Pence might be—but are rather jockeying for the Number Two spot on the GOP ticket. People have come around to seeing things my way. There has never been any doubt that the former President Donald J. Trump will be the 2024 Republican nominee. The rumble at the Reagan Library did nothing to change that.

And, in truth, it’s dubious that any of these people will be on Trump’s ticket, although Ramaswamy would clearly maim himself to get the nod. (And, you know, there would be something to it—can you imagine the fantastic transformations Ramaswamy’s name would undergo in the Trumpian idiom?) Vice-presidential candidates are rarely drawn from the ranks of challengers, even when the main attraction weighs personal loyalty less than Trump does. If I were making book, Governor Kristi Noem of South Dakota would be my favorite, tabloid scandal or no. (If anything, I’d guess getting your picture in the Daily Mail increases your odds.)

In a word, this was all a bit stupid. These people, collectively, are going to burn a nine-figure sum and not even make it to the big show. If I had wanted to see that, I could have stuck to watching the Mets. It wasn’t even good T.V. Even the usually avuncular Scott bullying Ramaswamy couldn’t pierce the anhedonic gloom. Even Mike Pence using his best late-night D.J. voice to intone the words “expedited federal death penalty” couldn’t do it. 

Little help was forthcoming from the moderators; Fox News’ Dana Perino appeared actively hostile to the candidates, while Stuart Varney, the gray eminence of Fox Business, was affably confused. Inexplicably, a Colombian newsreader for Univision, Ilia Calderon, was the third moderator. Perhaps this is the rare case of a job that an American really will not do; perhaps the grandees at Fox Business, the debate’s sponsor, were just revealing their own globalist alignment.

So, what did we learn, Palmer? Well, I can fill out this column by divining a few points. First, ending birthright citizenship has become an acceptable mainstream GOP proposal. Hearing Ramaswamy lay out the argument that the Fourteenth Amendment does not cover the children of illegal immigrants was not a surprise. Hearing Scott agree with him was. (What exactly the president can do about this is, of course, an open question, since this is prima facie an issue for the courts or the legislature.) Second, the use of armed force to secure the border is the GOP consensus position, even if that means some form of boots on the ground in Mexican territory. (Haley’s baloney-shaving about “special operations” as distinct from military operations was unconvincing.)

Meanwhile, far away, Trump gave a thunderous address to United Auto Workers picketers in Detroit. He spoke on the theme that made him president: the consistent betrayal of American interests and especially American industry by the political class. Nobody has the knack for the hard-truth tone that Trump does. “It doesn’t make a damn bit of difference what you get, because in two years you’re all going to be out of business,” he said, pointing to the potential auto worker displacement from Biden’s government-pushed electric vehicle transition. Nor does anyone beat the anti-globalist drum so well: “If we can afford to send billions of dollars to Ukraine, then we can afford to have an auto industry that pays our workers a good living wage to keep the workers working.” 

This is the real arena; this is where the next president will be chosen. The chattering in Simi Valley about school choice and just how much of the federal government should be abolished is beside the point. Can Trump or Biden better protect the American national interest? That is the only question.