OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Typical GOP chaos on stage

They had another Republican presidential debate the other night. It was most unpleasant. There were raw insults. There was personal ridicule. To call a foe merely "liar" was to pull a punch.

The spectacle got scored as follows: Donald Trump won by not being there; Nikki Haley won because the other candidates targeted her and thus validated her as the leader after Trump; Ron DeSantis won by reviving himself with forceful expressions of modern populist conservatism; Chris Christie won by defending Haley better than she defended herself and exposing the others as cowards who won't take on Trump, and Vivek Ramaswamy won by telling Haley she was corrupt and advising Christie he ought to leave the stage and go eat a meal.

Let's not forget that Christie called Ramaswamy an obnoxious blowhard and smartass. He left out fruitcake, perhaps because he hurled the slurs before Ramaswamy said the Jan. 6 insurrection appears to have been an "inside job" contrived by the deep state.

You could say the Democrats won, but Joe Biden is 81 and DeSantis said even Trump at 78 is too old for a four-year term. Biden in fact lost because he somehow manages to trail most of those disgraces in head-to-head polling.

Obviously, no one wins if everybody wins--except for the guy who is more than 20 points ahead in early states and 40 points ahead nationwide.

Chaos favors the chaotic.

As I explained in a column Thursday, Haley came in with momentum from her emergence as possibly the consolidated alternative to Trump. That was based on solid debate performances and a well-expressed traditional conservatism that won her the endorsement and donations of rich corporate donors.

But all that did for her in the debate was make her vulnerable. Her being a traditional corporate conservative got thrown in her face by DeSantis and Ramaswamy.

That she is the strongest Republican general-election candidate is a problem in the Republican primary.

Getting targeted was good for Haley in that it made clear to anyone watching that she was acknowledged as the front-runner after Trump. It was not good for her in that some of the blows landed, and she looked a little dazed on the ropes a time or two.

It was not as bad as what happened to Marco Rubio and Mike Bloomberg. But she was rendered less going out than when coming in.

It's easier amid contemporary Republican dialogue to boast, as DeSantis did, that he signed a bill in Florida to ban boys from girls' bathrooms than to explain, as Haley did, that she dismissed any need for such a law in South Carolina because it wasn't a problem.

Haley's problem is that you can't emerge as the candidate swing voters are warming to and remain attractive to the impractical and simpleton hard-right conservatives who dominate Republican primaries and Republican debate audiences.

Even I have written nice things about her, which, regarding Republican primaries, is a marker for looming doom.

My favorite Republican officeholders tend not to be officeholders anymore. They either lose primaries or give up politics in despair. Or they run sadly and pointlessly for president.

I actually don't like or agree with Haley much. It's just that I so fear Donald Trump's madness, meanness and dangerousness that I long for a competent and conventionally conservative Republican to wrest the party from him and spare the nation the general-election risk.

I've heard a couple of left-of-center types say that, if it comes down to Haley versus Biden, they might well vote for Haley for youth and competence and hope the Democrats win congressional majorities to keep her in check. You can't walk safely into a Republican debate with that kind of appeal.

DeSantis didn't resemble in this debate a candidate needing to get out of anyone's way. He seemed like a vote-splitter with Haley, which buoys Trump.

Here is the Haley-DeSantis dynamic: Haley was, when South Carolina's governor, a bit too Asa Hutchinson-ish for today's grievance-wielding Southern Republican voter. DeSantis is more Sarah Sanders-ish, which plays better in the South.

Smart television commentary after the debate noted the major political shift that seemed to be unfolding. Republicans were moving away from corporate conservatism to working-class populism, and Democrats were becoming favored on Wall Street and resented by working people.

And Jewish voters are probably pondering whether Republican devotion to Israel doesn't so exceed that of modern-day liberals that their historic devotion to Democrats might be in play.

A postscript: Christie predicted that Trump won't even be able to vote for himself for president, since he'll by then be a convicted felon. I hadn't thought about it that way. Today's Republicans are asking what's the point.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at [email protected]. Read his @johnbrummett feed on X, formerly Twitter.

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