OP-ED: Post-mortem of the Fox News debate — the drama before the elephant enters

Politics is showbusiness, and there’s nothing grander than the spectacle of six (plus two, and minus one big one) contenders running for the Oval Office going up against each other in a no-holds barred debate.

OP-ED: Post-mortem of the Fox News debate — the drama before the elephant enters
AP Photo/Morry Gash
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In the glow of studio lights and hushed anticipation, the Fox News debate on Wednesday offered a theatrical performance worthy of Broadway — just with fewer jazz hands and more jabs. As the potential standard bearers of the Republican Party took center stage, the nation leaned in, eager to assess who would be left standing when the dust settled.

Politics is showbusiness, and there’s nothing grander than the spectacle of eight contenders running for the Oval Office going up against each other in a no-holds barred debate.

Vivek Ramaswamy's Shiny Facade

Enter Ramaswamy. As polished as a newly minted coin, he glistened with the promise of novelty. But as he spoke, it became increasingly evident that he was, for the most part, gilded rather than golden.

Many of his proposals resonated like the concluding note of an orchestral masterpiece — beautiful, but fleeting. His proposal to rein Russia in as an ally of the United States and turn it against China ignores the longstanding reality that most of the rich men north of Richmond hold a grudge against the former USSR, having been denied their ability to sate their appetites with Russian blood during the Cold War.

His other promises — notably the total abolition of the three-letter agencies (what DeSantis and Trump might call the “Deep State”) are lofty, but otherwise ring hollow.

The balance of experience and charm has always been delicate. Yet, as Ramaswamy leaned heavily into catchy phrases and grand promises, one couldn't help but wonder if his sparkle might be blinding us to a lack of substance.

Ron DeSantis: A Steady Ship in Choppy Waters

Then there's DeSantis, a stark contrast to Ramaswamy's flash. The man is a beacon of solidity, his words resonating with gravitas. If Ramaswamy is the lightning in a bottle candidate, DeSantis is the sturdy lighthouse guiding ships safely ashore. But even lighthouses need to shine brightly, and DeSantis' reserve might have dimmed his radiance.

When DeSantis spoke, people listened. But he did not speak enough, nor was he called on as often as one would like — given his proven expertise as Florida’s governor and his singular ability to simply get the job done. One wished he had seized more opportunities to voice his vision.

Mike Pence: Overachiever with Misaligned Priorities

As for Mike Pence, the former Vice President seemed to approach the debate like a student intent on outdoing his previous grades. And outdo he did, albeit not in ways everyone might appreciate. His prioritization felt scattered, like a Picasso painting—parts brilliance, parts baffling. His demeanor might not win the likability Olympics, but it certainly would make headlines.

At various points in the debate, it sounded like he was more interested in campaigning for Ukraine than he was for the United States — a position that he was in competition for with both Nikki Haley and Chris Christie, all of whom seemed intent on slaying some Russian Baba Yaga instead of exorcising America’s demons at home.

Nikki Haley: A Songbird Missing Its Tune

The usually formidable Nikki Haley seemed to hit a few sour notes. It was as though she had been handed a microphone with a few wires unplugged—her words didn’t convey the conviction or clarity that one might expect. In a sea of assertiveness, her hesitations bobbed conspicuously. And as the only woman on stage, she made it a point to bring up her gender multiple times like some special ingredient or secret sauce sorely missing from the White House.

Hillary Clinton tried it before in 2016. It didn’t work then, and it isn’t going to work now.

It really didn’t help that she was insistent that America could once again become great if only it put more money into invading more foreign countries and asserting America’s military might. It isn’t working for Biden, and it didn’t work for Obama or Bush, so why would it work for Haley?

Tim Scott: The Recorded Message

Tim Scott, for his part, came across as if someone had pressed play on a recorder stashed in his pocket. His conservatism felt rehearsed, a repackaging of well-trodden grounds. Authenticity is the currency of today’s politics, and one hoped for a more genuine coin from him.

Curiously, Scott moved away from any topic relating to China, as if he was apprehensive to even discuss it.

Asa Hutchinson and Doug Burghum: Misreading the Room

Asa Hutchinson and Doug Burghum are two candidates who only barely made it into the debate by meeting its not-so-stringent requirements. And their presence on stage couldn’t have been more jarring. They seemed to be reading from a script designed for a different audience, and were only called upon by the moderator, Bret Baier, as a form of sympathy to the other candidates to recalibrate after each question.

Their harping on "competing with China" felt misaligned with the room's energy, especially in light of the wildfire in Maui, the porous U.S. southern border, and every other problem that concerns the average American. Perhaps a different stage would be more suited to their chorus.

Chris Christie: The Trump Whisperer

Lastly, Chris Christie. He might have been mistaken for running a one-man show against Donald Trump rather than vying for the presidency. Every utterance, every gesture, seemed either to echo or challenge the former president.

Beyond the Trump-tinted glasses, Christie's relatability shone through. His unfiltered nature, akin to that friend who comments aloud on the movie's plot twist, was refreshing. His jabs, at times directed even towards himself, brought levity, though perhaps not votes.

The Impending Showdown

As the curtain falls on this act, the audience, America — and indeed the world — is left in suspense. The real drama will unfold when the victor of these skirmishes faces the proverbial elephant in the room: Donald Trump.

Leading the Republican field by a notable margin, Trump’s looming presence is undeniable. Whoever emerges from this eclectic group to face him will undoubtedly need more than sound bites, more than rehearsed lines, and certainly more than a shiny facade. The next act promises even more drama, and the world will be watching, popcorn in hand.

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