Five Debate Moments That Will Shape the Republican Campaign

There are moments of fireworks at every presidential debate, and then there are moments that last — the moments that shape the public image of candidates, the moments that influence campaign strategy, messaging, fund-raising and staying power. As part of Opinion’s commentary on the winners and losers in Wednesday’s debate, we asked five of our writers — Ross Douthat, David French, Michelle Goldberg, Daniel McCarthy and Michelle Cottle — to pick a video clip and explain why it will help shape the arguments in the Republican primary race or the trajectory of the candidates in the weeks ahead.

Pence, Ramaswamy and the Mood of America


We’re not looking for a new national identity. The American people are the most faith-filled, freedom-loving, idealistic, hardworking people the world has ever known. We just need government as good as our people. Mike, I think the differences you might have, some others like you may have on the stage, “It’s morning in America” speech. It is not morning in America. We live in a dark moment and we have to confront the fact that we’re in an internal sort of cold, cultural Civil War. And we have to recognize — You are equating the American people with the failed government in Washington, D.C., we just need government as good as our people again.

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Ross Douthat: Of all the varied and vigorous clashes between Mike Pence and Vivek Ramaswamy, the moment when Ramaswamy started talking about despair and doom and declining mental health in America and Pence shot back with the claim that actually there’s nothing wrong with the American people, just with our failed government and leaders, offered an especially pellucid distillation of the big divide between pre-Trump and post-Trump conservatism.

It’s a divide that’s both ideological and generational, pitting the old G.O.P. defaults (which are clearly still Pence’s defaults) of patriotic boosterism against a growing sense on the right that the American exceptionalism conservatives once defended has decayed or dissolved — and that something more radical than a message of small government and stewardship is required to bring it back.

Haley Decimates Ramaswamy’s Isolationism…


A win for Russia is a win for China. We have to know that Ukraine is the first line of defense for us. And the problem that Vivek doesn’t understand is he wants to hand Ukraine to Russia. He wants to let China eat Taiwan. He wants to go and stop funding Israel. You don’t do that to friends. What you do instead is you have the backs of your friends. Ukraine is a front line of defense. Putin has said, if Russia, once Russia takes Ukraine, Poland and the Baltics are next. That’s a world war. We’re trying to prevent war. Look at what Putin did today. He killed Prigozhin. When I was at the U.N., the Russian ambassador suddenly died. This guy is a murderer and you are choosing a murderer over a American country.

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David French: When Nikki Haley mustered all her experience and knowledge as America’s former ambassador to the U.N. and all the moral clarity of traditional American resistance to Russian tyranny, she decimated Vivek Ramaswamy’s populist isolationism. She won on style and substance and reminded voters why she was once considered a Republican rising star.

…And Then Hammers Him As Inexperienced


I wish you well in your future career on the boards of Lockheed and Raytheon. You know, I’m not on the boards of Lockheed and Raytheon —— But the fact of the matter —— But you’ve been pushing this lie —— But you want —— You’ve been pushing this lie all week, Nikki —— You want to go and defund Israel. You want to give Taiwan to China. OK, let me address that. I’m glad you brought that up. You want to go and give Ukraine Russia —— I’m going to address each of those right now. This is the false lies of a professional politician. There you have it. Under your watch —— So the reality is —— You would make America less safe. You have no foreign policy experience. And it shows. And you know what? It shows.

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Michelle Goldberg: Nikki Haley’s best moment was when she eviscerated Vivek Ramaswamy for his eagerness to surrender Ukraine to Vladimir Putin: “You have no foreign policy experience and it shows.” Ramaswamy may have thought the Trumpified Republican Party would eat up his trollishly amoral foreign policy, and there’s no doubt that plenty of base voters thrill to his contempt for the liberal Democratic icon Volodymyr Zelensky, but the crowd seemed to be clearly with Haley.

A Revealing Moment About DeSantis


No, it’s not a territorial dispute, either. As president of the United States, your first obligation is to defend our country and its people. And that means you’re sending all this money, but you’re not doing what we need to do to secure our own border. We have tens of thousands of people —— We can do both —— who are being killed because, well, we’re not handling both. And so I am going to declare it a national emergency. I’m not going to send troops to Ukraine, but I am going to send them to our southern border, when these drug pushers are bringing fentanyl across the border, that’s going to be the last thing they do. We’re going to use force and we’re going to leave them stone cold dead. OK.

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Daniel McCarthy: Ron DeSantis could have gone along with most of the field in automatically supporting more aid for Ukraine. Instead, he joined Vivek Ramaswamy in wondering why Americans should pay more than Europeans for Europe’s security. The foreign policy debate in the G.O.P. is serious and intense, even if debates like this are more intense than serious. Gov. DeSantis and Ramaswamy point toward a new direction for U.S. strategy, not only in Europe but globally, while Nikki Haley and Mike Pence want to continue down the path set by Bill Clinton and George W. Bush after the Cold War.

This was a pivotally clarifying moment, and it will earn DeSantis much obloquy from pundits and think tanks, but perhaps more support from the G.O.P.’s antiglobalist base.

Pence Makes a Plea About the Constitution


But the American people deserve to know that the president asked me, in his request that I reject or return votes unilaterally, power that no vice president in American history had ever exercised or taken, he asked me to put him over the Constitution, and I chose the Constitution. And I always will.

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Michelle Cottle: I don’t think any moment from this debate is going to shift anything much for any of the candidates. But I was struck by Mike Pence’s determination to get across this point about his former boss: “He asked me to put him over the Constitution. And I chose the Constitution. And I always will.”

It smelled a little self-righteous and self-congratulatory. But it was the right thing to do and an important thing for Republican voters to hear.

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Michelle Cottle is a member of the Times’s editorial board and a host of “Matter of Opinion.” Ross Douthat, David French and Michelle Goldberg are Times columnists, and Mr. Douthat is also a host of “Matter of Opinion.” Daniel McCarthy is the editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Review.

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