Politics / January 11, 2024

The GOP Primary Debate Was a Tedious Mess

Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley clearly despise each other, but neither emerged as the obvious number two behind Trump.

Joan Walsh

Former UN ambassador Nikki Haley, right, and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, left, speak at the same time at the CNN Republican presidential debate in Des Moines, Iowa, on January 10, 2024.

(Andrew Harnik / AP Photo)

If any Republican presidential primary debate could be said to matter—and that’s debatable—the only contender might have been Wednesday night’s CNN showdown between Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. They are, essentially, the last two standing; others still in the race couldn’t qualify to participate. (Reminder: Donald Trump qualifies but refuses to participate. He is by every measure in the lead.)

Still, while former New Jersey governor Chris Christie didn’t make the cut, he managed to upstage Haley and DeSantis by suspending his campaign just hours before the two got to mix it up. On a hot mic, he was heard to say to a New Hampshire supporter about Haley, “She’s gonna get smoked. You and I both know she’s not up to this.” And he related that “DeSantis called me, petrified.” People suggested that DeSantis was “petrified,” because he feared Christie would endorse Haley. He did not.

Christie, whose voter support was minimal, declined to endorse either candidate, saying, ​​“Anyone who is unwilling to say that he [Trump] is unfit to be president of the United States is unfit to be president of the United States.” That includes Haley and DeSantis.

As Obama might have said: Please proceed, governors.

Proceed they did, but the debate was a mess. Haley and DeSantis mainly sniped at each other. I’m acting like GOP voters want to hear about issues. They love grievance, and both embodied grievance. So maybe some Republicans enjoyed the spectacle of two petty individuals trying to catch the other one out. It’s not clear anybody won. Except, of course, Trump, who won by default.

Hate was onstage in Des Moines. These two Southern Republicans seem to genuinely despise one another. You could imagine that might be entertaining, but it was tedious. It became impossible to figure out who was lying about whom. Haley kept mentioning her website DeSantisLies.com. It was distracting, and it came to seem like a weird tic. Plus I checked the site, and it didn’t help me determine the bigger liar.

Haley and DeSantis competed over who is more pro-Israel; more opposed to teachers’ unions; who is more anti-trans, anti-tax, anti-China, anti-immigrant, and anti-Biden. They did not compete over who was more anti-Trump; both ducked most direct questions about him.

Nevertheless, Haley showed the most courage in criticizing Trump, especially when asked about how her view of the Constitution differs from the twice-impeached, 91-felony-charge-facing former president.

“He says January 6 was a beautiful day.… I think January 6 was a terrible day,” she said. About Trump’s lawyer’s immunity claims on Tuesday, she exclaimed, “You can’t claim you can kill a political rival!” (If she could, she would probably kill DeSantis.)

When DeSantis attacked her for a tweet saying, “The death of George Floyd should be personal and painful for every American,” which was a perfectly accurate statement, she didn’t dodge it. In fact, she escalated, saying, “We [in South Carolina] didn’t have riots,” while other cities exploded after Floyd’s murder, “we had vigils. We didn’t have protests, we had prayers.” She actually boasted about her leadership in taking down the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Capitol, which I didn’t expect.

That, of course, might doom her.

DeSantis had one unlikely progressive moment: He came out hard against raising the Social Security eligibility age: “I don’t see how you can raise the retirement age when life expectancy is going down.” I guess that happens when you’re the governor of Florida, where folks retire, but I appreciated it. Then Haley noted that DeSantis, when in Congress, voted to increase the retirement age three times. Oh, well.

I would have loved for the moderators, Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, both of whom I think were generally good, to raise the possibility that wealthier people pay into Social Security and Medicare—we stop paying once we make $168,000—to solve the alleged coming “crisis.” But mainstream media folks almost never raise that. Haley’s answer was expanding Medicare Advantage plans, which is disqualifying, because they are a scam.

After the debate, CNN’s panels judged DeSantis the winner. And when he appeared with Anderson Cooper, DeSantis seemed to agree. He was unusually animated, explaining that Haley “does not have purchase with core conservatives.” He seemed strangely hopped up, and I wondered who is watching these debates, anyway? I have to—it’s my job—but why would anyone else?

Meanwhile on Fox, Trump boasted that he’d overturned Roe v. Wade. “I did it,” Trump said. “And I’m proud to have done it.” He mocked both Haley and DeSantis. It’s hard not to join him in that. Neither Haley nor DeSantis took this opportunity to emerge as the clear number two, the person who is necessary in case Trump gets sick or gets convicted. We’ll get more information after the Iowa caucuses January 15 and the New Hampshire primary January 23. That means we’ve got to keep paying attention to ridiculous Republican politics at least until then. Sigh.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh, a national affairs correspondent for The Nation, is a coproducer of The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts The Tonight Show and the author of What’s the Matter With White People? Finding Our Way in the Next America. Her new book (with Nick Hanauer and Donald Cohen) is Corporate Bullsh*t: Exposing the Lies and Half-Truths That Protect Profit, Power and Wealth In America.

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