“In the end, it is impossible not to become what others believe you are,” wrote Julius Caesar. Words that Republican primary contenders may well understand on a fundamental level, even if they aren’t familiar with the quote itself. As the candidates stood on the dais making their individual pitches to the American public on September 27, what should have concerned them most was the impression they made rather than the policies they espoused. With the third debate due on November 8, in Miami, FL, Vivek Ramaswamy’s campaign is calling for a tightening of the entry requirements in order to give each qualifying candidate more time.
“Vivek 2024 CEO Ben Yoho urged the RNC to limit the next debate to the top four candidates in national polling besides former President Donald Trump in a letter addressed to RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and Committee on Arrangements co-Chairs David Bossie and Anne Hathaway. He also asked the RNC to raise the donor threshold to 100,000 donors,” The Hill reported on October 2. But will another televised shouting match-make a difference to voters’ eventual decision? Or is there an X factor that candidates need to demonstrate?
For many voters, it is not solely policy that provides weight to their ultimate ballot casting. If it were, politicians would simply produce a document, release it, and then wait for inauguration day. The electorate insists on personality, persuasion, and passion from the prospective leadership, and it is these traits the seven GOP hopefuls – not including the frontrunner, Donald Trump – are attempting to expose during both their debate performance and their campaigns.
While praising the legacy of the statesman and writer Cicero, Caesar said “It is more important to have greatly extended the frontiers of the Roman spirit than the frontiers of the Roman empire.” Have any of the debate stage aspirants fulfilled the promise of the ancient Roman philosopher? Perhaps a brief review of the contenders’ words and deeds will shed some light.
Center stage was Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is currently polling around 14% – a mere 42 points behind pack leader Trump. He has the most to prove as one of the only realistic contenders in the race. During Wednesday evening’s debate, he twice took swipes at the 45th president, perhaps to project strength and create a distinction between the two men who essentially have a very similar policy platform.
For those watching rather than just listening to the event, DeSantis’ words seemed at odds with his body language – a series of awkward and ill-timed smiles appeared to betray a veneer of confidence. However, above all the others, he seemed to know when to speak and when to deliver a point with gravitas. Overall, he cast the persona of someone above the fray and confident in his position as top dog among those present.
In terms of fulfilling the promise of Cicero, DeSantis came a close second to a contender with perhaps a little too much polish: Vivek Ramaswamy.
The young entrepreneur began the event by attempting to play the peacemaker – likely a course correction after calling the other attendees “bought and paid for” during the first debate. He also aimed for a humbler approach, stating with believable humility that some see him as a “know-it-all” and that he would seek wisdom from others. Despite this more low-key version of Ramaswamy, he delivered a couple of barnstormer moments.
“Victimhood is a choice. And we choose to be victorious in the United States of America,” he declared at the outset. Then, sounding all-together Trumpish, he announced:
“What we need is to deliver economic growth in this country. Unlock American energy, drill, frack, burn coal, embrace nuclear energy, put people back to work by no longer paying them more money to stay at home. Stabilize the US dollar itself. And rescind a majority of those unconstitutional federal regulations that are hampering our economy.
“That is how we unleash American exceptionalism. And that’s not a Democratic vision or a Republican vision, that is an American vision that we embrace economic growth. And capitalism is still the best system known to man to lift us up from poverty. And we should not apologize for it. That’s what it means to be an American.”
A cri de couer that had many an America First devotee applauding. And yet his exuberance may be the very thing that is holding him to a third-place position. The poet W.B. Yeats wrote in the first verse of The Second Coming: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Ramaswamy’s near-manic enthusiasm may just be a fraction too much for some voters.
Too Much or Too Little
Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie seems to have one simple mission: Bring down Donald Trump. He has almost zero chance of becoming the nominee and is supported by a just a tiny minority of Never-Trumpers who would perhaps balk at casting their ballots in his favor Election Day. His bias and purpose are as blatant as his disposition – surly and truculent. He offers little in the way of policy or inspirational leadership and allows his peculiar raison d’etre to shadow what could otherwise be a solid campaign.
Another candidate who opted for attack mode during the debate was former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley. This was very much an about face from her first performance, where she came across as a calm, collected adult. Perhaps her campaign team strategists suggested a more indignant style would serve her well with donors looking beyond Trump. But for the voting public she may have lost those that appreciated her formerly cool demeanour. As Liz Peek pointed out in her debate analysis on Fox News, “mud wrestling does not flatter many women.”
On the opposite end of this particular spectrum is South Carolina Senator Tim Scott. So far, his campaign – like his personality – has been steady and unobtrusive, two adjectives that are likely campaign killers. However, in this most recent debate he opted for a more fiery persona that is sure to appeal to a wider range of voters – and perhaps even to a former president hoping to once again claim the crown.
As noted by NBC News recently, Scott is “beloved by congressional colleagues, complimented by voters who see him as ‘really nice,’ and even praised by his rivals — including barb-trader-in-chief Donald Trump. But being Mr. Nice Guy might be one reason why Scott struggled to break through at last month’s GOP presidential debate.” Indeed, the addition of some fire in his belly may yet push him higher in the polls.
The Quiet Men of the Primary
Neither former VP Mike Pence nor North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum made waves on the debate stage – and this is all-too indicative of their personalities. Pence was chosen for VP precisely because he would not overshadow the enormous ego of his boss, but it may also be this trait that keeps him from “greatly extending the frontiers “of the American spirit.
His key stumbling block is that many pro-Trumpers see him as disloyal in the wake of January 6 – not so much for his decision to certify the electors, but rather for his words regarding the former president since the event.
Governor Burgum suffers from almost zero name recognition, with one recent poll suggesting 90% of the population had never heard of him. If he were a brasher and more bombastic candidate, he could have turned that image around during the last two debates, but he isn’t. His personality appears to be quiet, pensive, and reserved – qualities that would certainly make a good statesman in less hectic times, but these are not those times.
Facing the Music …
These GOP contenders have bravely put their heads above the parapet for the chance of either winning the nomination, getting the number two spot, raising their profile, or bringing down a despised opponent. They will take flak of the like few have experienced in the pre-Trump political era, and careers could be won or lost.
They have each gambled on achieving one of the above outcomes; for some, this will be the first step on a new path, and for those that fail, it will be a dismal swan song; but either way, “Iacta alea est!” as Caesar said before crossing the fateful Rubicon river– The die has, indeed, been cast.