The first Republican presidential debate on Aug. 23 revealed three categories of candidates: a couple who might be sensible pragmatists, a couple others who might be sensible if they weren’t trying to contort themselves into ruthless conservatives, and a third group in hot pursuit of the fringiest elements of the GOP.
The most sensible candidates don’t always win national elections.
Many voters value performance over substance or want somebody who makes them feel good rather than promising responsible governance. Given that Donald Trump is the leading Republican contender, despite a losing record since 2020 and indictments on 91 criminal charges, it’s likely the GOP nominee will be a bomb-thrower rather than a Reaganite establishmentarian.
But let’s say Republican voters wanted a nominee who, say, might be capable of running a publicly owned company or, even crazier, of winning moderate swing voters in a general election? Are there any such GOP candidates?
Maybe. Here’s a breakdown of the eight Aug. 23 debaters by degrees of normalness.
Nikki Haley. The former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador under Trump was the truthiest candidate at the debate, correctly pointing out, for instance, that Republicans have run up the national debt more or less the same as Democrats have. She smartly defended US aid to Ukraine in its war against Russia, pointing out that it’s only 3.5% of the US defense budget. She also deftly handled the question of what to do about her former boss, Trump, by saying Republicans should simply choose somebody else: “He’s the most disliked politician in America. We can’t win a general election that way.”
Asa Hutchinson. The former Arkansas governor and director of the Drug Enforcement Administration under George W. Bush spoke rationally about the American drug crisis, pointing out, for instance, that a solution needs to address the huge demand for drugs in the United States as well as taking on traffickers in Mexico and China. He also bragged about putting his own state in strong fiscal shape. It’s a lot easier to do at the state level than in Washington, but at least he, like Haley, has some experience with a government budget.
Haley is a long-shot candidate, and Hutchinson probably a no-shot one. Normal only gets you so far.
Chris Christie. The former New Jersey governor is the most ardent Trump critic in the GOP field. Great, there should be more Republicans attacking Trump for trying to trash the US electoral system after he lost to Joe Biden in 2020. But Christie sucked up to Trump after losing to him in the GOP nominating round in 2016. He helped Trump’s campaign back then and briefly ran his transition team after Trump got elected. Christie supported Trump during the entirety of his presidency and voted for him in 2020. Only later did Christie turn against Trump. His criticism now feels like a wan rebranding effort for an outdated product.
Doug Burgum. Before becoming North Dakota governor, Burgum built a software company that Microsoft bought for $1.1 billion. After a stint at Microsoft as a top exec, he formed a couple of other investing firms. So he ought to have cred as a certified wealth builder who knows how the real economy works. Burgum did sound pragmatic when he defended most teachers instead of jumping straight to the GOP tagline about evil teachers’ unions. But he also lost the audience with arcane quips about OPEC and Sinopec and a forced effort to blame Biden for the amount of oil China buys from Russia.
Christie and Burgum are both trying too hard to establish their relevance within the Republican party. As semi-normal contenders, they each count as 0.5 of a normalish candidate. All told, that adds up to three normalish candidates: Haley and Hutchinson, plus half of Christie and half of Burgum.
Mike Pence. He’s campaigning as the battle-tested pro, given his experience as a member of Congress, the governor of Indiana, and the vice president who rejected Trump’s illegal power grab after Trump lost in 2020. Fair enough. But as an overt evangelical, Pence is a niche candidate, by definition. He favors a national abortion ban starting at six weeks of pregnancy, which is a political nonstarter (as Haley pointed out) and is also out-of-step with what the majority of Americans want. Pence is really campaigning to be America’s pastor-in-chief. Except there is no such job, so he’s running for president instead.
Ron DeSantis. The Florida governor basically said he would order a military invasion of Mexico on “Day 1” of his presidency, to take down the drug cartels pushing fentanyl on Americans. But if he did that Americans would still want to buy fentanyl; they’d just find it from other sources. So at the next debate, DeSantis should spell out who else he might invade. Meanwhile, DeSantis demonized Anthony Fauci (who retired early this year) and blamed Democratic fund-raiser George Soros for a rising crime rate in Miami. DeSantis sees enemies everywhere and casts everything as warfare. Most voters don’t have enough inner rage to relate to DeSantis’s combative mentality.
Tim Scott. The South Carolina senator is somehow affable and bloodthirsty at the same time. He said during the debate that he espouses Judeo-Christian values, and also that he wants to break the back of the teachers’ unions. Does he need to use such violent metaphors? Scott is supposed to be the nice ultraconservative, it’s just that his plans to finish Trump’s border wall, fire IRS agents, and shrink the social safety net sound, well, mean.
Vivek Ramaswamy. The 38-year-old multimillionaire entrepreneur revealed himself to be a know-it-all tech bro aiming to lead some kind of revolution. Here’s his pitch to America’s young voters: “Burn coal … the climate change agenda is a hoax … Trump was the best president of the 21st century.” Ramaswamy would cut off aid to Ukraine because he fears a “Russia-China alliance.” And he’d pardon Donald Trump if a jury finds him guilty, torpedoing one of the pillars of the US justice system. The dude is too young to be that angry.
These four candidates are in the “Trump lane,” where the game plan is to mimic the former president in one form or another in the hope that he flames out and the Trump base will suddenly be up for grabs. Even then, they ought to keep in mind that Trump lost in 2020, and so did Trumpiness.