Vivek Ramaswamy is a certified conspiracy theorist

Published December 7, 2023

The Telegraph

Ron DeSantis easily had his best debate performance so far last night. The question is, will it matter?

DeSantis displayed a calm, forceful demeanor throughout the contest. In prior encounters, he would sometimes appear a bit uneasy, more concerned about avoiding gaffes than scoring points. Last night, he was collected and comfortable, whether he was attacking Nikki Haley or expounding his own ideas.

He was perhaps at his best when talking about the culture war issues that animated his national rise. He is passionate when talking about protecting women’s spaces from transgender persons, whether in the bathroom or on the sporting fields. DeSantis was eloquent in defending Covid vaccines while attacking mandates or spreading their usage to babies despite the lack of any scientific evidence on their efficacy or safety for such young patients. Many Republican voters care passionately about these topics, and DeSantis showed he would be their champion.

Haley polling rise predictably made her the target of attacks, which she largely weathered. She clearly is a top tier candidate, not a one hit wonder. Her problem, though, is her message. She appeals to the Republican old guard, the voters who want a pre-Trump GOP without the populist flourishes. Haley has adopted many of the post-Trump policy preferences: she opposes transgender surgery on minors, for example. But she doesn’t prioritize them to the degree that DeSantis does, and that’s something voters for whom this is their passion notice.

Vivek Ramaswamy continued his bizarre strategy of being the annoying interloper on the stage. He lobs attacks on everyone with a nearly crazed, conspiratorial energy and went so far at one point to hold up his note pad for the camera with words “Nikki = Corrupt”. If Hollywood adapted the debates for “Batman” movie, he would be the Joker, anarchically and gleefully spreading mayhem and destruction in his wake. It’s not surprising that no one approached him afterwards for the customary post-debate handshake.

Chris Christie is again the most capable candidate with absolutely no chance to win. He’s smart and polished. He’s also familiar with all the issues and is never lost for words. His problem is that he’s the explicitly anti-Trump candidate in a party whose voters still like Trump. The path to victory would come by persuading them to think twice about whether they want to follow him again down a path to defeat and ruin. Christie can’t do that without acknowledging first why they are attracted to him, but he continues to ignore that crucial first step.

If this were a normal debate stage, we’d know that DeSantis would be gaining strength. The problem, however, is that the front runner never takes part in these battles. With Trump absent, the four candidates can appear like also-rans rather than true contenders. At some point that has to change for either DeSantis or Haley to do more than simply battle for second place.

Nothing has so far budged Trump’s perch. Candidates have risen and fallen in the polls beneath Trump, but his 40-50 percent in early state polls has remained secure. Until that changes, these debates are just sound and fury signifying nothing.

There are, however, still over five weeks to go before Iowans trudge into the snow to vote in the caucus. That’s an eternity in politics. Rick Santorum and Marco Rubio caught fire in the last week before the 2012 and 2016 caucuses, more than doubling their vote shares right at the end. We can’t rule out that happening again.

To do that, however, DeSantis and Haley have to speak directly to the Trump voter rather than at one another. Each will have to explain why they should choose them rather than Trump. They can’t tell those voters they should reject Trump or turn their backs on him. Instead, they need to show why it’s time to move on from him. That’s a tough sell.

That’s why they both need more debates, preferably at least one with Trump. The Republican National Committee has not announced whether there will be a fifth debate in January; if it does, the RNC should set a high bar to qualify so that it effectively would be a 1-1 faceoff. That would attract attention, especially in Iowa, and could settle who is best positioned to go on against Trump.

The dynamic duo should also challenge Trump directly to face them. Abraham Lincoln obtained his famous debates against Stephen Douglas by following the incumbent around Illinois, speaking immediately after him in every location Douglas traveled to. DeSantis and Haley might want to do the same thing, scheduling impromptu rallies in the same city directly after every Trump appearance. The message would always be clear: if Trump can’t fight me, how can he fight for you?

The Republican race remains Trump’s to lose. Last night’s debate clarified that the contest has winnowed down to three people. Whether it gets any closer than that depends a lot on what they from here on, and even more on whether Trump voters are at all interested in looking elsewhere.

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.

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