Presidential hopefuls spar in Alabama Republican debate

Published 9:18 pm Wednesday, December 6, 2023

With the Iowa caucuses rapidly approaching, a shrinking field of Republican White House hopefuls gathered Wednesday in Alabama for the fourth presidential debate.

As usual, former President Donald Trump, who is dominating the GOP primary, didn’t appear. Instead, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie continued their effort to gain a sliver of the spotlight in the race.

Here are some takeaways from the final primary debate of 2023.

Fighting Trump for once
The front-runner in the Republican primary has no end of vulnerabilities. He faces 91 criminal charges and just the night before repeatedly refused to rule out abusing power if he returns to office.

But, as has been the pattern, Trump was ignored during much of the debate. There was one great exception in the second hour, when the moderators asked Christie about Trump. Christie complained that his three rivals have been silent about the threats Trump presents to democracy.

“You want to know why these poll numbers are where they are?” Christie asked. “Because folks like these three people on this stage want to make it seem like his conduct is acceptable.”

Christie then began jousting with DeSantis, who confined his criticism of Trump to the former president’s age and failure to achieve all of his agenda in his first term. “Is he fit to be president or isn’t he?” Christie asked. “Is he fit? Ron, Ron? He’s afraid to answer.”

Ramaswamy accused his rivals of all “licking Donald Trump’s boots,” but then proceeded to argue the Jan. 6,2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol was an “inside job” — hardly distancing himself from the former president and his penchant for lies and misinformation.

Ramaswamy has been particularly adept at pulling fire away from Trump. The 38-year-old political novice and pharmaceutical entrepreneur has specialized in grating, personal attacks that his rivals just can’t bring themselves to ignore.

On Wednesday, he challenged Haley to name three Ukrainian provinces that he claimed his 3-year-old could identify, and Christie, who had tried to launch an attack on Trump to open the debate, exploded.

“All he knows how to do is insult good people who have committed their lives to public service,” Christie said.

Minutes later, Haley took an unusual swing at Trump for failing to go further than simple trade actions against China. But DeSantis jumped in, attacking Haley for her relationship with China. The two Republicans began snapping at each other, leaving Trump unmentioned.

Again, it went just as Trump would hope — the candidates fought each other rather than him.

Haley under attack
Haley was under attack from the opening seconds of the debate. And it didn’t let up for almost 20 minutes, a clear reminder that the former United Nations ambassador’s opponents see her as a growing threat in the race.

DeSantis amped up the pressure as he answered the debate’s opening question, which was about his struggling campaign.

“You have other candidates up here, like Nikki Haley, she caves every time the left comes after her,” DeSantis said, casting himself as a fighter.

The Florida governor then seized on Haley’s recent support from Wall Street and at least one major Democratic donor. Ramaswamy soon joined in, highlighting the personal wealth Haley accumulated since leaving the public office.

“That math doesn’t add up,” Ramaswamy charged. “It adds up to the fact you’re corrupt.” Minutes later, Ramaswamy called Haley a fascist.

Haley defended herself aggressively. But as the political adage goes, if you’re explaining, you’re probably losing.

“I love all the attention, fellas, thank you,” she said.

And she drew some applause from the crowd when she pushed back against the criticism of her political donations.

“In terms of these donors that are supporting me, they’re just jealous. They wish they were supporting them,” she said.

Christie has faced questions about why he’s not dropping his struggling campaign and backing Haley, who shares many of his more moderate views. While he’s not showing any sign of leaving soon, he took the opportunity to defend Haley, particularly from Ramaswamy’s heated critiques.

“This is a smart, accomplished woman,” Christie told Ramaswamy during an animated exchange. “You should stop insulting her.”

Capitalist contradiction
One candidate was attacked for sitting on a corporate board and being too close to big business. Others fretted about a plot by giant firms to re-engineer the country’s politics — and then one said he wants to gut government regulations to free up business.

This wasn’t a Democratic debate, dominated by that party’s skepticism of corporate titans. The Republican party in the era of Trump is a lot more conflicted about business and industry than in its prior, free-market form.

That was obvious from the first set of questions aimed at Haley, who was asked whether her roles on corporate boards and donations from major companies would sit well with the party’s “working-class voters.”

DeSantis and Ramaswamy continued to hit Haley over that dynamic, even as Haley quipped they were just “jealous” of her donor support. DeSantis also claimed Haley wanted to let in as many immigrants as “the corporations” desired and boasted about how he withdrew $2 billion of Florida public pension money from a hedge fund over its use of environmental, social and corporate governance.

“They want to use economic power to impose a left-wing agenda in this country,” DeSantis said of some corporations’ embrace of ESG, an effort to use progressive principles in investing.

But then Ramaswamy bemoaned the way the government doesn’t fully recognize cryptocurrencies as a real financial instrument, and segued into promising to eliminate three-quarters of the government bureaucrats to cut regulations. That is a routine promise of Ramaswamy’s, and comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to consider a case that could sharply limit how the federal government can regulate industries, a longtime goal of conservative activists who helped assemble a six-judge majority on the high court.

The GOP’s contradictions over corporations weren’t an explicit subject of the debate, but they were an undercurrent that won’t be resolved for a while.

The Bizarro primary gets more bizarre
For the past seven months, the political world has watched a sort of Bizarro primary unfold — a number of Republican politicians have insisted they will become the next president while the last one, Trump, leaves them in the dust.

For those not in the know, Bizarro was a Superman character who came from a world where everything was scrambled. It’s been hard to escape that upside-down feeling as, every month, there’s another debate that Trump skips where no one does anything to change the trajectory of the race.

Wednesday night was an example. The debate was on NewsNation, a little-viewed upstart cable channel. The debate also aired on CW stations — but only in the eastern and central time zones.

Indeed, one big question was whether the debate’s ratings would be surpassed by those of DeSantis’ faceoff with California’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, on Fox News last week. The Republican National Committee is expected to soon announce whether it’ll allow further unsanctioned debates. At least one more debate is expected before the Jan. 15 Iowa Caucus.

Perhaps the ultimate Bizarro twist would be if these confrontations mattered in the presidential election. You can never tell when something unexpected might happen in politics. But the time for these debates to matter, if it ever existed, is rapidly running out.