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Robert David SullivanAugust 24, 2023
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy talk at the same time during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by FOX News Channel Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

About a decade into the run of NBC’s “Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” there were jokes about how infrequently Mr. Carson appeared on the talk show with his name in the title, but there was never any doubt that all the guests and guest hosts were there at his pleasure. The same goes for last night’s eight-candidate Republican primary presidential debate, which Donald J. Trump skipped with the confidence that the Republican Party belongs to him, not vice versa.

If not an official guest host, Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, aimed to be the center of attention at the debate that aired exclusively on Fox News—trying, as all presidential candidates must, to get voters comfortable with the prospect of seeing him on their screens almost every day. His own day did not start auspiciously, with reports about a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll giving him 12 percent of the Republican primary vote to Mr. Trump’s 52 percent. The same polling organization had Mr. DeSantis at 45 percent of the vote to Mr. Trump’s 41 percent in February. The late-show analogy would position Mr. DeSantis as another Joan Rivers, Mr. Carson’s protégé and heir apparent until she infuriated him by starting her own talk show, but the governor would probably not like the comparison to a favorite persona of drag queens.

Donald J. Trump skipped last night’s eight-candidate Republican primary presidential debate with the confidence that the Republican Party belongs to him, not vice versa.

Unfortunately for Mr. DeSantis, it was the technology entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy (who, like Mr. Trump, has the confidence of someone who was never elected to any political office before deciding he should be president) who got most of the post-debate headlines. The New York Times declared “Ramaswamy Seizes Spotlight as DeSantis Hangs Back,” and it calculated that Mr. Ramaswamy logged more speaking time than anyone else on stage except for former vice president Mike Pence. A Fox News story suggested that the best answer of the night was Mr. Ramaswamy’s championing of the two-parent family. “The word privilege gets used a lot,” Mr. Ramaswamy said. “Well, you know what? I did have the ultimate privilege of two parents in the house with a focus on educational achievement, and I want every kid to enjoy that.”

Mr. Ramaswamy also distinguished himself by opposing U.S. aid to Ukraine, with an odd religious reference to “professional politicians who will make a pilgrimage to Kyiv, to their pope, Zelenskyy,” meaning President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine. (Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, shot back that Mr. Ramaswamy was “choosing a murderer” by siding with Russian President Vladimir Putin.) Mr. Ramaswamy called climate change “a hoax,” adding, “I’m the only candidate on stage who isn’t bought and paid for, so I can say this.” Almost all of the other Republican candidates acknowledge human activity as at least a partial cause of climate change, even if they disagree with the Democrats on how to respond to it.

Mr. Trump has transformed the Republican Party so much on the issue of immigration that there was really no way for Mr. Ramaswamy to get to anyone’s right on the issue. Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina may have captured his party’s mood best during the debate by proposing to fire 87,000 I.R.S. agents and double the size of the country’s border patrol. Watching the debate, the New York Times reporter Jennifer Medina wrote, “It’s really striking how ‘build the wall’ has morphed into widespread calls for military intervention and ‘deadly force’ at the border among most of the Republican candidates.”

Is another polarizing political neophyte, Mr. Ramaswamy, the only alternative to another Trump nomination?

The Times calculated that abortion got more airtime than any other issue during the debate, and Mr. Pence was the most forthright in backing a national ban on late-term abortions. Almost all the other candidates, including Mr. Ramaswamy, voiced support for state bans of six or 15 weeks but were doubtful about the prospects of a national ban, with Ms. Haley in particular dismissing the idea that a national ban would pass Congress.

At an early stage of the 1988 presidential campaign, the smart-alecky way to refer to the Democratic field was “Gary Hart and the Seven Dwarfs,” referring to the frontrunner and the various governors and members of Congress seeking to supplant him. Those candidates were not as deferential toward Mr. Hart as most of the G.O.P. candidates are toward Mr. Trump. Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, was the chief exception last night, saying of the actions that have landed Mr. Trump in several criminal investigations, “Someone has to stop normalizing this conduct…. Whether or not you believe that the criminal charges are right or wrong, the conduct is beneath the office of president of the United States.”

But Mr. Christie was also a reminder that most of the Republicans who are even mildly critical of Mr. Trump have the word “former” before their titles. The Republican Party has still shown no capacity for recalibration after multiple election losses and now the multiple indictments of its national leader. Is another polarizing political neophyte, Mr. Ramaswamy, the only alternative to another Trump nomination?

[In the Trump indictments, something more than democracy is at stake: the truth itself.]

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