Discover more from David Matthews Portable Bohemia
Opening Night of Debate Season
After reflection and some back and forth at the Portable Bohemia editorial desk, I declined to watch Wednesday’s Republican debate live because the Republican National Committee granted Fox News exclusive broadcast rights, unlike previous debates among presidential contenders and pretenders that could be viewed on a variety of networks and platforms regardless of whose reporters served as debate moderators. The only alternative to Fox News was Rumble, a live streaming platform popular with conservatives that has an exclusive partnership with the RNC. Rumble also boasts streaming deals with Trump’s Truth Social and Junior Trump. Charlie Kirk, Russell Brand, and Jordan B Peterson are among the luminaries featured on the platform, which not incidentally boasts immunity to cancel culture. The broadcast arrangement is a piece of culture-warfare signaling orchestrated by RNC chair Ronna McDaniel, formerly known as Ronna Romney McDaniel before Uncle Mitt became a little too open in his criticism of a certain former president before whom she and the RNC bend the collective knee in fealty.
Not inclined to contribute to the body count for live viewers, I contented myself with real-time commentary on line. Much of the following morning was devoted to accounts at the customary go-to sources: Politico, The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Bulwark, and The Atlantic. Although this gave me a decent feel for what went down, by afternoon I was sufficiently curious to turn to Fox News for video of the affair and subject myself to it. Much coverage of the debate was commendable but it turns out no substitute for watching the very best the MAGA Republican Party has to offer in action.
The first takeaway is the open partisanship displayed by Fox moderators Brett Baier and Martha McCallum, who set up rounds of Biden bashing on the economy and immigration with misleading and factually challenged lead-ins. They failed to press candidates about their own misleading and factually challenged claims or for specifics about inane policy proposals. Jonathan V. Last nailed them:
Why didn’t the Fox moderators ask Vivek for specifics on his wild-ass proposals?
In addition to the Putin-China nonsense, Vivek said he would cut the federal workforce by 75 percent. How would that work? The federal government employs about 2.8 million people.
How many jobs in the military will he cut? In VA hospitals? In the administration of Social Security and Medicare? What happens to the labor market and the economy if 2.1 million Americans become unemployed overnight?
Shouldn’t Fox viewers have known how Vivek proposes to handle all of this?
Brett Baier and Martha MacCallum were absolute jokes—parody versions of the most uncharitable liberal caricatures of Fox talking heads. (Mugged by Demagoguery)
The term “debate” is always a misnomer for these affairs. This holds for Democrats as well as Republicans, by the way. Candidates routinely evade questions or ignore them altogether, recite prepared talking points largely irrevelvant to the point at hand, run past the allotted time for response, interrupt and talk over one another, and so on. All of this was on display in spades. It would be not quite accurate to say that Baier and McCallum lost control of the debate. They abdicated control at the outset.
The debate opened absurdly with a question about the song Rich Men North of Richmond, a putdown of Washington elites labeled by Marjorie Taylor Greene “the anthem of forgotten Americans,” and closed out with a silly question for Chris Christie about the “recent spike in UFO encounters,” which Christie to his credit fielded with humor and aplomb. When McCallum commented that “Rich Men” was “striking such a nerve” with people, Ron DeSantis was quick to lament that “Our country is in decline…We need to send Joe Biden back to his basement and reverse American decline.”
The muse struck back with a generous dose of irony when Oliver Anthony denounced the appropriation of his song. Anthony considers himself middle of the road, taking aim at ubiquitous establishment elites across the board regardless of party affiliation or political orientation.
“It’s aggravating seeing people on conservative news try to identify with me, like I’m one of them,” Anthony said in a video published on YouTube on Friday, speaking from what looked like the cab of a rain-spattered pickup truck. “It was funny seeing my song…at the presidential debate because it’s like I wrote that song about those people, you know, so for them to have to sit there and have to listen to that, that cracks me up.”
Lest there be doubt, he added, “That song has nothing to do with Joe Biden, you know? It’s a lot bigger than Joe Biden. That song was written about the people on that stage and a lot more, not just them.” (Sulliman, After GOP debate)
Second takeaway is that Harvard Law School graduate Ron DeSantis was not the most unlikeable person onstage. DeSantis gave it his best shot but came in a distant second to smary Yale Law School graduate Vivek Ramaswamy. Unlike DeSantis, who did not once appear to be enjoying himself, the preening pretend entrepreneur had a grand time antagonizing Nikki Haley, Mike Pence, and Chris Christie, who were clearly not just feigning outrage to score points. They were miffed. And well they should have been. Ramaswamy’s indifference to truth is impressive even by standards of the alternative facts crowd, and he is shameless when called on it, blithely denying that he said what he has plainly just gotten done saying. In this he would be a worthy successor to the man whose boots he licks with enthusiasm rivalling that of Lindsey Graham.
It took a while to find a transcript of the debate at CQ Roll Call so I could check my notes and recollection. It appears that the RNC and Fox News do not wish to make it easy to hold these scoundrels and scalawags accountable for their many statements and claims of questionable veracity. Ramaswamy was at the head of the class but far from alone in playing fast and loose with the facts while trotting out a raft of policy proposals truly remarkable for their vacuity.
“Say what you will about his performance tonight, Ramaswamy definitely locked up the ‘worst guy in your freshman year philosophy class’ vote,” said one senior Democratic strategist after the debates. (Allison, Wren, Ramaswamy)
Topping the list is his claim the climate change agenda is a hoax and “the reality is more people are dying of bad climate change policies than they are of actual climate change.” The Ramaswamy program for putting America on the path to growth and prosperity is to “unlock American energy, drill, frack, burn coal and embrace nuclear, put people back to work by no longer paying them more to stay at home, reform the US Fed, stabilize the US dollar, and go to war” with the federal administrative state. At this Pence got in one of several decent jabs in defense of his own record on deficit reduction and balancing budgets: “Let me explain it to you, Vivek, if I can. I'll go slower this time.” On another occasion, when Ramaswamy made a crack about his opponents’ “memorized, pre-prepared slogans,” Pence cracked back, “Is that one of yours?”
Nikki Haley used her acknowledgement that climate change is real and Republicans do care about clean air and clean water as a springboard for some China bashing, a popular theme throughout the evening. The root of the climate problem is pollution in China and India. She would start by telling those countries to stop polluting. Only after they lower their emissions can we “start to deal with the planet.” “But,” say the fact checkers at FactCheck.org, “the U.S. emits more carbon dioxide than India and emits more CO2 per capita than both countries” (Robertson, et al., FactChecking). The moderators did not ask and Haley did not volunteer anything about what she would do if China and India fail to act in accordance with marching orders. Maybe she expects Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi to click their heels, salute, and lower emissions just like that at the command of the US president.
The Department of Education and the DOJ came under attack. The domestic agenda favored in some corners of the party amounts to wholesale dismantling of that side of the federal government. Tim Scott’s glib solution for problems afflicting American education is to break the backs of the teachers unions. DeSantis would solve the crime problem and “hollowed out cities” by axing radical left-wing district attorneys funded by George Soros. Weaponization of the DOJ against political opponents, which is to say, a certain former president, and conservatives and conservative causes was another favored talking point, albeit with Chris Christie, Asa Hutchinson, and Pence dissenting to varying degrees at various points. Hutchinson was blunt and to the point:
It starts at the top with respect for our justice system, that a former president who's under indictment has undermined by attacking judges, by attacking prosecutors, by attacking the system and saying he's aggrieved.
And so, we have to have respect for our justice system and the rule of law. And it starts at the top with the president of the United States.
It seems to escape some people on the right side of the aisle that the charges against Trump are unprecedented because the things he did and continues to do are unprecedented. That does not figure to change. A telling moment came when the crew onstage was asked to raise their hands if they would support Trump as Republican nominee if he is convicted of a felony. Ramaswamy’s right hand jolted heavenward with such force that he risked injury as he channeled his inner fourth-grader certain he knows the correct answer, me! me! me! By constrast DeSantis looked around to check the prevailing winds before tentatively lifting his hand to join five fellow constitutionalists who would welcome a convicted felon to the White House. Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson dissented.
Here are a few among many claims called out by fact checkers I consulted (listed at the end):
Department of Justice designation of parents who show up at school board meetings as domestic terrorists: False.
Pence’s claim that 15 percent of Americans support a ban on abortions after 15 weeks: Questionable. Source data varies.
Claim by multiple candidates that Democrats support abortion on demand up to the moment of birth: False.
Chris Christie’s claim that in 1980 incumbent Jimmy Carter was defeated by a Republican governor from a blue state “who knew how to get results” (Christie was a Republican governor in blue state New Jersey): False. “In six of the seven presidential elections before 1980, the majority of Californians voted for the Republican candidate, backing Dwight Eisenhower twice, Richard Nixon three times and Gerald Ford once” (PolitiFact).
Calls to secure the border centered more on drug cartels than illegal immigrants. DeSantis would send US special forces into Mexico to take out fentanyl labs and cartels. It is not clear whether he has in mind doing this in collaboration with the Mexican government or by way of invasion. As a member of the Bush administration, Asa Hutchinson was involved in meetings with Mexican president Vicente Fox that resulted in joint actions against the cartels. He talked as tough as anyone on stage but with a difference: He stressed cooperation with Mexico.
The Republican Party is fractured on continued funding for Ukraine. In another irony for our time the far right and factions on the left find common ground in opposing US support for Ukraine. So does Ramaswamy. Haley and Christie lashed him on the issue. DeSantis waffled by calling for Europe to pull its weight on Ukraine. Credit goes to Haley for pointing out that as a percentage of GDP eleven European nations contribute more to Ukraine than the US. PolitiFact puts the number at nineteen.
Conventional wisdom has Trump the big winner. His hardcore base is unmoved, and none of the pretenders did much to nudge those who are waffling away from him. The MAGA statesman wasted no time putting Thursday’s mugshot to use for the fundraising that is crucial for payment of legal fees to any lawyers he does not stiff. In yet another bow to alternative facts, the former president gave his weight as 215 pounds when he was booked in Atlanta. On a six-foot-three frame, mind you.
Some conservative commentators view the debate through rose-tinted glasses or maybe therapeutic psilocybin and imagine in Haley, Pence, Hutchinson, et al., everyone apart from DeSantis and Ramaswamy, the basis for a normal Republican Party, conservative but not illiberal. My glib reference to rose-tinted glasses and therapeutic psilocybin aside, there is a lot of wishful thinking going on there.
Nikki Haley acquitted herself well. But she raised her hand in support of a convicted felon for president. She was, within the context of Republican positions on the subject, good on abortion until she demagogued with her line about asking Biden and Harris if they are okay with abortion up to 38, 39, 40 weeks. Christie was good on Trump and Ramaswamy. That gets him nowhere in this race. Asa Hutchinson and Doug Bergum came off as serious people, but they too get no traction with MAGA voters. Tim Scott did not distinguish himself. Neither did DeSantis, for which we should be grateful.
This leaves Ramaswamy. Some analysis has him benefiting from attacks by Haley, Pence, and Christie and a winner by virtue of the fact that everyone seems to be talking about him now. What portion of the remaining vote he can attract as his record, agenda, and character become better known is an open question. Trump likes Ramaswamy because those most likely to be drawn to him are firmly in Trump’s camp. A good showing will only further divide the pretender vote, paving the way for a Trump coronation.
Ramaswamy likes to say that he is the only person in the field who is not bought and paid for with contributions from super PACs. A pair of articles by Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and Steven Tian published earlier this summer at Fortune punctured that balloon.
Despite bragging that he is not “beholden to donor masters” thanks to his fortune, virtually all of Ramaswamy’s companies operate in the red, and none have ever turned a profit consistently. His flagship holding company, Roivant, has never once turned a profit since going public, losing $433 million in 2020, $698 million in 2021, and a whopping $1.12 billion in 2022, with Bloomberg predicting another $1.03 billion in losses in 2023.
To be sure, many companies operate in the red for prolonged periods of time—Amazon went 20 years before turning a profit. But what this means is that these money-losing companies are continually dependent on new investor funding coming in—or else they die. Thus, far from being self-reliant and self-funding, Ramaswamy needs genuine billionaires to sustain his cash-burning enterprises. (Vivek Ramaswamy)
He apparently is good at selling himself to people who hope to make a lot of money from ventures that turn out to be less than substantial. He may not be as shady as Sam Bankman-Fried and Elizabeth Holmes, but he appears to be cut from some of the same cloth.
Ramaswamy has become the court jester of corporate governance. The mere mention of his name brings anything from smirks to outright gales of laughter amongst some corporate audiences.
One hopes that Strive is not on a path to fail as badly as some of Ramaswamy’s previous ventures, such as Axovant, a Ramaswamy-founded company whose stock price plunged from $200 to 40 cents, or Campus Venture Networks, Ramaswamy’s much-hyped undergraduate startup which, despite his self-aggrandizement, he apparently sold for just a few thousand dollars, if his tax returns are correct. Even one of Strive’s biggest financial backers, Bill Ackman, is apparently embarrassed and rushing to disavow Ramaswamy. Meanwhile, Strive is reduced to seeking “consulting contract” handouts from friendly politicos. (The alt-right economy).
Ramaswamy is a pretend outsider. He has close ties on both sides of the aisle. Right-wing megadonor Peter Thiel is a backer. Leonard Leo, Federalist Society vice president, co-chairman of its board of directors, and currently under investigation by the DC attorney general, is another. Senator J.D. Vance is a Yale Law School pal. The advisory board for Ramaswamy’s company Roivant includes Kathleen Sebelius, US health secretary under Barack Obama; Tom Daschle of South Dakota, formerly Democratic leader in the US Senate; and Olympia Snowe, formerly a Republican senator from Maine. (Pengally, ‘He’s an insider’).
Wrapping up. The best, the sanest and soberest among these candidates paint a distorted picture of Biden and Democrats that aims to appeal to a significant chunk of the party that believes Joe Biden is a socialist, Marxist thug who probably reads Karl Marx before turning in for the night. The party line here goes beyond exaggeration and hyperbole that politicians typically engage in to sharpen distinctions between themselves and ideological adversaries. Whether they believe their rhetoric or are simply willing to play to the base because they feel must is almost beside the point. Imagining wildly for a moment that the least objectionable of these guys and Haley were to claim the nomination and win the presidency, that person would be confronted with the House blockhead caucus, illustrious senators like Havard Law School graduate Rafael Edward “Ted” Cruz, Yale Law School graduate Josh “Crazy Legs” Hawley, and Southern Arkansas University grad Coach Tommy Tuberville, and the MAGA faithful. With all benefit of the doubt in the world in regard to honorable intentions, I cannot see it ending well.
My fellow baseball fan Jonathan V. Last, known as JVL among comrades at The Bulwark, is of the opinion that the debate was not the worst thing to happen to America Wednesday night. No, the worst came when nonpareil two-way star Shohei Ohtani left the mound with a torn ulnar collateral ligament that will sideline his pitching self for at least the remainder of the season. Ohtani continues to serve as the team’s designated hitter while awaiting a second opinion on the torn UCL. In the first game after the injury, he hit a double and drew three walks in five plate appearances.
Ohtani has already done enough to win the MVP award. Even if he doesn’t play another inning this year. But we—and by “we” I mean everyone on the planet—are being robbed of seeing something so special that before Ohtani it never even occurred to anyone that it could be done: He was going to win the Cy Young and set the home run record in a single season.
But even in our disappointment, baseball teaches us. To appreciate what we get; to be stoic in the face of disappointment; and to go back to the ballpark tomorrow. (Last, Mugged)
Keep the faith. Stand with Ukraine. Yr obdt svt
Thanks for reading David Matthews Portable Bohemia! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
References and Related Reading
Transcript: GOP presidential hopefuls debate in Milwaukee, Roll Call, August 24, 2023
Natalie Allison, Adam Wren, ‘It just got to be annoying': Ramaswamy suddenly becomes a force, Politico, August 25, 2023
Geoff Bennett, Breaking down the Republican debate and where the candidates stand with voters, PBS NewsHour, August 24, 2023
David Corn, Check Out These Exclusive Pics From Hunter Biden’s Big LA Art Opening, Mother Jones, October 4, 2021
David Graham, Ramaswamy and the Rest, The Atlantic, August 23, 2023
John Hendrickson, Vivek Ramaswamy’s Truth, The Atlantic, August 21, 2023
Katya Kazakina, We Spoke to Hunter Biden About His New Life as a Full-Time Artist, and His Personal Quest for ‘Universal Truth’ Through Painting, artnet, June 14, 2021
Jonathan V. Last, Mugged by Demagoguery, The Bulwark, August 25, 2023
Last, This Campaign Is a Bataan Death March, The Bulwark, August 24, 2023
Tom Nichols, The GOP’s Dispiriting Display, The Atlantic, August 24, 2023
Martin Pengelly, ‘He’s an insider’: Ramaswamy’s deep ties to rightwing kingpins revealed, The Guardian, August 25, 2023)
Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, Steven Tian, The alt-right economy is failing. Here’s the real performance of anti-woke entrepreneurs, Fortune, June 5, 2023
Sonnenfeld, Tian, Vivek Ramaswamy is threatening GOP heavyweights in the polls–but his business record doesn’t live up to the hype, Fortune, June 14, 2023
Adela Sulliman, After GOP debate, Oliver Anthony says politicians ‘weaponized’ his song, Washington Post, August 26, 2023
Daniel Dale, Fact check: Audio debunks Vivek Ramaswamy’s false claim that he was misquoted about 9/11, CNN, August 22, 2023
Daniel Dale, Fact check: Big differences between Hunter Biden gun case and rapper Kodak Black’s, CNN Facts First, June 23, 2023
Glenn Kessler, Fact-checking the first Republican primary debate, Washington Post, August 24, 2023
PolitiFact, What Republican candidates got right, wrong in first debate on Fox News, Poynter, August 24, 2023
Lori Robertson, Jessica McDonald, et al., FactChecking the First GOP Debate, FactCheck.org, August 24, 2023