Good Friday Morning! Especially to the best season of all, which kicks off this week. The ESPN College Football hype video is out, and week zero is this weekend. I felt like I was living in the video of Matt Mitchell, FunnyMaine, and SEC Shorts together in a college football support group. Fortunately, there’s no reason to seek therapy anymore.
The big topic this week is the first GOP Primary Debate, which I watched from start to finish. I’ve got coverage of that below and plenty of links.
- Trump got his mug shot in Fulton County, GA. He then proceeded to fire off his first tweet since January 8, 2021. As I get into below, this was a “break glass in case of emergency” moment for Trump. The debate drove the entire news cycle, and people aren’t paying attention to his interview with Tucker Carlson. Funnily enough, though, Republican officials are taking a different tact. Take TN Senator Marsha Blackburn, she’s already endorsed Trump in the race and sent out a fundraiser email based on the Trump mugshot. 99 dollars of every hundred dollars goes to her campaign, while one dollar goes to Trump. Republicans fundraising off Trump but not letting him soak up all the money for himself is a reversal of what happened when he was President, when Trump took everything.
- Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner paramilitary group, who led an alleged coup attempt on the Russian military, was assassinated by Russia, according to US military intelligence. WSJ reports: “The plane … crashed as the result of an assassination plot but wasn’t shot down by a surface-to-air missile, US officials said. The preliminary US government assessments, which officials stressed are incomplete, suggest that a bomb exploded on the aircraft or that some other form of sabotage caused the crash northwest of Moscow.” The obvious belief is that this is retaliation from Vladimir Putin. Two other possibilities are that this was the Russian military responding back, or it was Putin cleaning up some Wagner messes in Africa. We’ll have to wait to find out. But for now, the most obvious explanation is that Putin is dealing with a possible coup attempt in the most stereotypical Russian way possible.
- The Bud Light fallout continues. The NYPost reports, “Ad firm behind Bud Light’s Dylan Mulvaney fiasco fires 13 staffers after lavish French trip, sources.” The ad has lost Bud Light and its parent company $27 billion in share valuation. Prior to this month, Bud Light had said it was still the best-selling beer of the year, and the slip was only on a monthly basis. But as we’ve entered a new month, Modelo has overtaken Bud Light as the best-selling beer of 2023. So while Bud Light continues shelling out on endorsement deals with the NFL and more, there aren’t any signs sales are improving. Maybe they can turn things around once football season begins in earnest.
Where you can find me this week
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Trump Skips Debate Due to Low Energy and Legal Peril – Conservative Institute
A Second Chinese Contagion Looms – Conservative Institute
Will the Real Vivek Ramaswamy Please Stand Up? – Conservative Institute
The First GOP Primary Debate
The first Republican Primary debate is in the books. I watched the entire thing and live-tweeted many thoughts (live-x’ed?). But I decided to organize them here and flesh out other ideas and broad themes.
First up: what wasn’t at the debate?
The obvious answer: Donald Trump. I wrote at the Conservative Institute that I believed Trump didn’t attend the debate, at least partially because of the legal cases against him. The debate was Wednesday evening, and Trump had signed a deal to get arrested the next day in Fulton County, Georgia. Given the timeline involved, I don’t think Trump’s legal team wanted him to do anything to jeopardize the deal they struck with prosecutors.
But beyond the obvious physical absence of Trump, there was also a lack of him in the questions and answers. Fox News set aside a single segment to discuss Trump’s impending arrest. They decided to frame that segment around whether or not Mike Pence “did the right thing” on January 6, 2021, by denying Trump’s request to overrule the Constitution.
Other than that segment, Trump only came up a little. Mike Pence raised the “Trump-Pence” administration several times, talking about their good policies. But otherwise, it was a breath of fresh air to listen to a debate of conservative ideas (except Vivek Ramaswamy; more on that later).
Aside from Trump, there were a few other notable missing things. For starters, nothing on trans issues came up. That’s odd, considering it is currently animating nearly every education, healthcare, and sports debate. Several candidates tried to bring it up, but Fox wanted to avoid it. We also didn’t get a segment on the Second Amendment, which is set to be a perennial issue before SCOTUS for the next decade. The Fox questions on abortion and climate change were focused more from a leftist angle.
Ron DeSantis — correctly — blasted the abortion question. Fox tried to suggest his position was extreme, and DeSantis pointed out he’d won a landslide election in a purple state. Nikki Haley took the bait, preferring to talk about what is politically possible. All in all, Fox News took a notably more liberal slant to questions than the past. It was evident from the question selection, format, and what they highlighted.
On abortion, DeSantis had the answer of the night, accusing Democrats of agreeing with abortion up until the moment of birth. That caused an immediate reaction from Democrats across the spectrum, who all denied that. But DeSantis is correct, and not one Democrat can name a single moment they’d allow for any ban.
Finally, the Second Amendment is a core issue in Republican politics, but people can be very different. Choosing to offer up a dumb question on UFOs and aliens instead of firearms or anything else was a bizarre choice. I get that it’s the first debate, and they can’t hit everything. But some of these absences were calculated.
Second: What was at the debate?
I deeply hate Fox News doing the thing they did in 2016 by asking a question and asking candidates to raise their hands if they agreed or disagreed. It’s a debate, not a journalistic fishing expedition. DeSantis called out one of the questions, saying he disagreed with the framing and the hand raising over talking made no sense. Again, it’s a debate, not a survey.
The debate started by asking Ron DeSantis what he thought of “The Rich Men North of Richmond.” That got followed by a segment on climate change, a lightning-round question on aliens, and the moderators trying to push back on candidates — instead of allowing the candidates to do that.
While I liked the debate overall, the question and topic selection was weak. In the Bidenomics section, there were no fundamental differences drawn between anyone. Of course, everyone on the stage disagreed with Biden. The climate change section started with Fox asking everyone to raise their hands if they “believed in it,” which was a dumb question.
I came away unclear about whether Fox was comfortable approaching conservative topics with a conservative audience. It was a weird sub-current throughout the debate combined with Trump’s absence.
The other weird thing about this debate was the audience. The event was held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. For the most part, they applauded various sections, with not much else. The boos against Chris Christie made sense because it’s Chris Christie, he’s the most hated man in Republican politics. Ramaswamy is climbing that ladder, though.
But they booed during sections that dealt with whether Trump’s conduct was wrong, regarding January 6 and all the stop the steal nonsense. And then turned around and applauded all the candidates for praising Mike Pence for rejecting Trump’s explicit pleas to overthrow the election results.
Republican voters were in that audience, but it’s unclear as to what they want or believe. It’s a weird tension to navigate.
The only real post-debate polling is from the Washington Post/Ipsos/FiveThirtyEight. This poll is notable because they polled the respondents before and after the debate to see what shifts occurred.
We also asked debate watchers who they thought performed best and worst on Wednesday night. The results were similar, with 29 percent saying that DeSantis did the best and 26 percent saying Ramaswamy did. Despite Haley’s high performance score, though, not as many people thought she was the strongest performer — just 15 percent. (All numbers in this article exclude respondents who skipped the question, which is why our numbers sometimes differ from those on Ipsos’s website.)
Interestingly, while 14 percent of debate watchers thought Hutchinson turned in the worst performance, he wasn’t the one with the highest share saying so. That “honor” went to former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whom 22 percent of viewers identified as the worst debater. One possible reason for this could be simply that Christie spoke more than Hutchinson did (over 11 minutes versus seven and a half). Similarly, the candidate who had the most speaking time (former Vice President Mike Pence, who spoke for almost 13 minutes) had a relatively high share of people saying he had the worst performance (13 percent). Ramaswamy’s performance proved somewhat polarizing as well: Despite 26 percent saying he was the strongest debater, another 11 percent said he was the worst.
Notably, DeSantis left the debate unscathed. His favorables ticked up to 72.4%, the highest in the field, while his unfavorables ticked down. More people are now considering DeSantis than anyone else. The number of people considering a vote for Trump dropped from 66% to 61%, and DeSantis climbed from 63% to 67%. On that metric, Trump and DeSantis changed positions.
On social media, I said that Ramaswamy had an awful debate. People disagreed with me. The proof is in the pudding on this one. He entered the debate with a 13.9% unfavorable rating. No one knew him. He left with a nearly 32% unfavorable rating, on par with Donald Trump. He alienated an entire segment of the voting base in a single debate. Another debate like that, and he’ll start challenging Chris Christie.
On Vivek Ramaswamy, I’ve never been more convinced I was staring at a con man. It’s unclear if he’s ever read a book in his life. His attempt to say we should pull out of Ukraine and focus on China to avoid alienating Russia made no sense. China has an active interest in the outcome of the Ukraine war. If Russia controls that farmland, they can supply cheap food to the Chinese.
As I’ve written many times, the critical issue of the Ukraine war is ensuring there is a Ukraine that Ukrainian people can return to. The US is asking everything of the Ukrainian people and promising little in return. How many dead Ukrainians will the US accept to drain Russia’s military? That’s the question that is ignored.
Does Vivek understand this? Or any point? He’s like a guy pretending to be a conservative for the camera, with no understanding of conservatism or American history. In an endlessly ironic moment, Ramaswamy declared he wanted the voting age raised to 25 and for young Americans to pass a civics test. He then claimed, “The US Constitution, it is the strongest guarantor of freedom in human history. That is what won us the American Revolution.”
For those playing at home: No, the US Constitution had nothing to do with the American Revolution. The Constitution was drafted in 1787 and ratified in 1789, where the war went from 1775 to 1781. Vivek couldn’t even pass his own civics test right now.
And that’s just one of many issues with Vivek “Hedge Fund rich guy and Soros fellow” Ramaswamy. This is one of those guys where if you don’t believe he’s a snake, look in the mirror because that person is Vivek’s mark. Vivek’s type is easy to spot. I’ve seen it from law school to corporate America, and everyone hates them for being pathological liars and self-promoters in the extreme.
Back to the debate and race.
For Ron DeSantis, the debate was a success. He emerged unscathed, got off numerous good shots, and locked down second place to Trump. I know he did this because his main competition coming into the race was Tim Scott and Nikki Haley. Scott had a very weak performance, while Haley had bright moments. But they also struggled to get attention or show they knew how to respond. If Haley hadn’t utterly nuked Ramaswamy in a foreign policy exchange, she’d have had a quiet night.
The next debate is in September, and I’d expect DeSantis to work on consolidating the field before then. Scott’s weak performance will hurt him immensely, leading into the next debate. Haley did enough to survive. But if DeSantis can force one of them out, it could boost his place in the polls. Christie, Burgum, and Hutchinson all face even worse odds. DeSantis’ goal is simple: winnow the field down enough to beat Trump in Iowa. From there, use the momentum to challenge Trump in New Hampshire and Nevada before a showdown in South Carolina.
Here’s the other critical fact that tells you DeSantis won the night. Trump spent all day raging about DeSantis on Truth Social, including posting literal MSNBC DeSantis smears, and by the end of the night, he was back on X/Twitter after the mugshot dropped. Trump feels the race is slipping away, and he needs to boost his fundraising to offset legal costs.
Trump remains the race leader, and he’s the incumbent. At this stage, I’d place the odds of winning this nomination at better than 60%. If he stays out of a second debate — which I doubt — DeSantis will have a shot to winnow the field further.
A year from now, the Republican Primaries will return to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to announce the primary winner. We kicked that process off in earnest this week, and it’ll be non-stop from here until November 2024.
Links of the week
Ramaswamy company pitched governments on effort to install universal covid patient records surveillance database: Datavant sought to create a universal database for governments that displays “every patient who has been tested for Covid-19.” – The Dossier
Me wanting to punch someone in the face might be a ‘me’ problem. But if Mike Pence, Chris Christie, Nikki Haley and I all want to punch the same person in the face? That surely has to be a him problem. – Josh Barro
Wall Street Funds Discuss Potential Bankruptcy Plan for WeWork: BlackRock, King Street, Brigade and other firms are holding preliminary discussions about WeWork’s future, as the company tries to reduce its rent costs – WSJ
Twitter Thread(s) of the week
Satire of the week
Russian Investigators Cleared Putin Of Downing Wagner Plane 7 Days Ago – Waterford Whispers News
Thanks for reading!