Donald Trump must be smiling right now. The former president came out on top by virtue of his absence from the underwhelming second Republican debate on Wednesday evening, where the seven non-indicted presidential candidates traded incoherent interjections and meticulously crafted zingers at the Reagan Library.
Former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley demonstrated that her strong performance in the first debate—and her ability to manhandle the boy entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy—was not a one-off.
"Honestly, every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say," Haley said after Ramaswamy, the 39-year-old entrepreneur and TikTok aficionado praised the Chinese spyware app for helping him connect with young voters. "This is infuriating because TikTok is one of the most dangerous social media apps that we could have." The Fox Business Network then went to break and cut to a TikTok ad.
The debate’s most memorable lines were about Trump, with Florida governor Ron DeSantis and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie taking aim at him for skipping the event to deliver remarks at a factory in Michigan. "Donald Trump is missing in action," DeSantis said. "He owes it to you to defend his record." Christie said Trump bailed on the debate "not because of the polls, and not because of your indictments, but because you’re afraid of defending your record."
"You keep doing that, no one up here is going to call you Donald Trump anymore. We're gonna call you Donald Duck," Christie said. Zing!
Yet none of the candidates did anything to persuade viewers they actually wanted to stand on stage next to Trump and subject themselves to his attacks. The relatively strong performances from Haley and DeSantis are difficult to assess in the absence of the commanding frontrunner, who is presumably content to remain on the sidelines as his lead continues to grow.
The debate itself was poorly managed and marred by atrocious lighting and moderators who struggled to corral the candidates. At one point they threatened to cut the mic of Gov. Doug Burgum (R., N.D.), who kept interrupting from the edge of the stage. Some of the questions—about income inequality, so-called DREAMers, and gun safety—seemed better suited for a Democratic primary debate.
Trump won the debate, but he wasn’t the only winner. The viewing audience lost big, obviously, but they weren’t alone.
Asa Hutchinson: The former governor of Arkansas failed to qualify for the debate, and his campaign will probably last longer as a result.
Doug Burgum: Aggressively interrupting journalists is always a winning strategy.
Reagan’s legacy: The former president’s library was an unfortunate setting for such a dismal contest. His family should consider moving his remains.
The moderators: Lousy crowd control. Baffling questions. Journalists, man.