Last Night’s GOP Presidential Debate Was Completely Nuts

The Republican presidential debate last night was full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. If anything, the candidates lost just by being there, much as the audience lost two hours of their lives by watching.

Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis, and Vivek Ramaswamy during the Republican primary presidential debate hosted by Fox Business Network in Simi Valley, California, on September 27, 2023. (Eric Thayer / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In the pre–Donald Trump era of yonder, Republican presidential debates were usually dull and predictable affairs with occasional moments of comedy provided by cartoonish figures like Herman Cain. Last night’s GOP debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, managed to replicate this formula exactly, albeit without the second part. After most debates, it’s customary to ask who won or lost. In this case, the question is basically irrelevant: the candidates all seemed to lose something just by being there, much as the audience lost two hours of their lives by watching. Even at the superficial level of spectacle, the whole thing was an absolute dud.

It is also likely to change nothing. Donald Trump’s lead in the polls is so rock solid it’s difficult to imagine anything that might even slightly narrow the gap. Since the race officially began, this lead has only widened, with the only candidate who remotely seemed to pose a threat — Florida governor Ron DeSantis — plummeting from the first moment he declared his candidacy. Only adding to the absurdity was the fact that Trump’s name barely came up at all, a silence that only reinforced the impression he now dominates the GOP so completely that ostensible rivals are afraid to meaningfully criticize him.

While a few participants like DeSantis and Chris Christie did deign to criticize the frontrunner, the thrust of their attacks was aimed at his nonattendance rather than anything of substance. In an apparent reference to Trump, former vice president Mike Pence at one point suggested the party could “stand on the foundation of that conservative agenda that Ronald Reagan poured” or succumb to “the siren song of populism” — a dig that might have been more coherent had Pence not spent other moments in the debate attempting to brandish the achievements of the Trump administration in which he served.

With the frontrunner absent and seemingly so assured of victory that many candidates were too frightened to mention his name, all that was left was a vintage 2012-era Fox News debate with a few more contemporary Republican themes — antitransgender bigotry, “parental rights,” Sinophobia — thrown in. And, echoing the debates of that era, the whole thing was, perhaps unsurprisingly, often completely untethered from reality.

In the political universe of last night’s debate, the Green New Deal has passed Congress and fossil fuels have more or less been outlawed, the United Auto Workers are striking against electric cars, police forces across America have been defunded, the Communist Party of China owns large swathes of land in North America, and Confucian values are running amok on college campuses. As far as pure absurdity goes, the badge has to go to DeSantis, who vowed to stamp out the mortal threat of Confucius Institutes once and for all:

The only thing more abundant than references to China were painfully caned one-liners reverse engineered to go viral. In one of the debate’s silliest moments, Christie attempted his old tough-guy schtick by calling Trump “Donald Duck” while looking straight into the camera.

Speechwriters for Pence and South Carolina senator Tim Scott had clearly phoned it in for the night, with both candidates (minutes apart) delivering versions of the same hack salvo that probably should have been left on the cutting room floor:

Scott: Joe Biden should not be on the picket line. He should be on the southern border, working to close our southern border!

Pence: Joe Biden doesn’t belong on a picket line. He belongs on the unemployment line!

For all their sound and fury, it’s unclear what any of these people hoped to achieve. Launching direct attacks on Donald Trump might be tactically unwise, but it would at least have the virtue of coherence. Why run against Trump at all if you’re just going to run the conventional, 2008–2012 Republican campaign, touting your experience in government while chest-beating about the greatness of America and promising to reduce the deficit?

By the end of the night, their presence only underscored, yet again, that all of this is a low-stakes pantomime act performed for the media and whatever small handful of donors still refuses to see the writing on the wall.