Published November 9, 2023
No one broke away from the Republican pack at Wednesday night’s debate. The evening nonetheless confirmed what has increasingly become apparent: Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis stand far above the others competing to become Donald Trump’s primary challenger.
Haley and DeSantis have executive experience as governors, and it shows. They both command the stage when speaking, giving forceful, clear answers to all manner of questions from the moderators. Presidents are elected to lead. That requires having a clear vision and acting decisively at key moments. DeSantis and Haley’s performances show they have those qualities.
Two of their competitors, Vivek Ramaswamy and Tim Scott, don’t. Scott has been a councilman, a representative, and a Senator, and that shows. Legislators are members of groups and derive power from quietly moving their colleagues. They don’t make unilateral decisions or stand alone. Scott displays none of the clarity and forcefulness that make Haley and DeSantis stand out.
He seems especially out of his depth when it comes to foreign policy. He says America’s primary interest in helping Ukraine is degrading Russia’s military, a preposterous and dangerous claim which, if made from the White House, would be an effectual declaration of war. That’s not strong; it’s imprudent.
He also says America should build a military capable of fighting simultaneously on three continents. Three-war capability is something the United States has not had since the Cold War and would require doubling the current defense budget to Cold War levels obtain. That’s just not serious, which again implies Scott is cosplaying the tough guy with no clue what his rhetoric would entail.
Ramaswamy continues to act more like an edgy provocateur than a serious candidate for president. He has private sector executive experience but seems more intent on throwing bombs than on building his political business. He again implied his competitors are corrupt and started the evening bizarrely blasting Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel for the GOP’s losses in the Trump era. Perhaps that jibe shows his real aim is to convince Trump to appoint him to replace her in the former president wins renomination.
He also descended into the gutter for some gratuitous personal attacks on Haley. Ramaswamy accused her of cashing in on her public service by joining corporate boards and writing books. He assaulted her hawkish foreign policy views by labeling her “Dick Cheney in three-inch heels”. He even attacked her for wanting to ban the Chinese social media app TikTok even though Haley’s daughter uses the app. That last attack broke through Haley’s icy discipline, leading her to call him “scum” under her breath.
Making Nikki Haley angry might make Ramaswamy happy. The unfair, over the top jabs also make millions of Republicans angry. He may be garnering fans, but he’s also gathering enemies. Love ‘em or hate ‘em candidates usually don’t win.
Former New Jersey Chris Christie remains the “what might have been” candidate in the field. He also displays clear vision and leadership, but his moderate views and anti-Trump persona makes him unelectable. He was one of the GOP’s leading stars a decade ago before a scandal and Trump’s emergence send him swirling downward. Every time I hear him I wish he had succumbed to entreaties in 2011 to enter the 2012 presidential race against Barack Obama. I’ll bet he wishes that too.
Haley and DeSantis seem to recognise that they have a mutual rendezvous with destiny. Haley took swipes at DeSantis’ energy exploration record, accusing him of being opposed to fracking at one point as governor. DeSantis has accused her of being soft on China when she was South Carolina’s governor, saying good things about Chinese investment as she welcomed firms to her state. Neither set of attacks has really landed yet, in part because both candidates have come around to positions that are shared by large majorities of GOP voters. With about two months to go before the Iowa caucuses, there’s plenty of time for this battle royale to heat up.
That only begs the question, however, whether either person can beat the frontrunner. Trump retains commanding leads in national and early voting state polls. Whoever wins the Haley-DeSantis clash must then take on the formidable Trump, and their fight to get to that point may damage their ability to win the ultimate contest. Until Trump actually shows up to debate himself, it’s hard to forecast how that person might fare.
They have nonetheless clarified matters for Republicans seeking an alternative to Trump. It’s Haley versus DeSantis. December’s debate looks to be where that battle is joined in earnest.
Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, studies and provides commentary on American politics. His work focuses on how America’s political order is being upended by populist challenges, from the left and the right. He also studies populism’s impact in other democracies in the developed world.