Lexi: Welcome back to campus! I started my year off tabling for College Republicans at the SAC Fair, where countless budding Wharton finance bros asked if we could get Vivek Ramaswamy to come speak! Seems like he really made a splash at the Republican Primary Debate last month.
Vinay: It’s good to be back, Lexi. A splash is definitely an understatement. Personally, I found myself irritated every time he interrupted informed veteran policy makers to virtue signal hyper-right populist talking points, but alas! And, for the record, many analysts on both sides more or less shared that sentiment. He definitely speaks to a very specific demographic that … shall we say, predominates on Penn’s campus.
Lexi: One man’s veteran policymaker is another man’s deep state insider, Vinay!
Lexi: To the rest of your point … his performance did highlight a stark contrast between the likes of Mike Pence and Nikki Haley who had a breadth of political experience and knowledge in their arsenal, making Vivek Ramaswamy appear somewhat lacking on the issues. That being said, his popularity among the Trump base, certainly challenges status quo perceptions of “MAGA.”
Vinay: It’s not at all surprising that the MAGA base loves him given that at certain points in the debate he felt more like a Trump apologist — or, better yet, cheerleader — than a serious candidate in his own right. Coupled with his obvious inexperience (see Nikki Haley obliterating him over his foreign policy proposals on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine), the debate morphed into cheap political theater when he was involved.
Lexi: A non-white candidate speaking that rhetoric definitely changes the tone though. As a brief aside, I think that his popularity speaks to growing pro-meritocracy sentiments in immigrant populations, which is building an interesting voter coalition. I wonder what the strategy is behind his relatively indistinguishable persona to that of Trump. Trump has even gone so far as to celebrate his performance since the debate.
Vinay: Race is definitely playing an interesting role here and, without getting too into the weeds, I think maybe some of his more out-there rhetoric like “the climate change agenda is a hoax” and “the nuclear family is the greatest form of governance known to mankind” is a gross overcompensation for the fact he doesn’t fit the mold of the typical white, Christian Republican candidate.
Lexi: That’s fair. Surely, this is indicative of Ramaswamy’s understanding of the base he is fighting for. That said, I think he is less of a deviation from the traditional conservative values he is purporting than Donald Trump. I am interested in the candidates who have continued separating themselves from the populists by emphasizing their commitment to living out their conservatism, notably Mike Pence.
Vinay: Maybe we’re all so used to Trump that it’s hard to see his rhetoric as anything other than authentic, and everyone else looks like a cheap imitation in comparison. But to your point, I did find Pence’s performance interesting in that he stood in pretty stark contrast to Ramaswamy and DeSantis. I think all the Jesus references were a bit much, although maybe that resonated with some …
Lexi: Politics is all about knowing your audience, Vinay! Speaking as the resident believer in this column, it’s certainly a refreshing contrast to both the populist right — and left — which often read very out of touch with the 27% of Americans who are regular churchgoers (and the broader 65% who identify as Christian). Even so, I tend to lean on the side that the politicization of religion in the United States can be very problematic to the health of religion — but that is a separate conversation entirely.
Vinay: All of Pence’s God talk might have landed with some voters, but his commentary on January 6th certainly didn’t with the Trump-loyalist crowd. And the other candidates definitely took note of that, since none were quick to jump to his defense except for Chris Christie, the self-proclaimed Trump antagonist.
Lexi: I was pretty pleased by the conversation around January 6th, honestly. I was glad that Pence’s presence (and his comments) forced the rest of the candidates on the stage to wrestle with the issue. It’s absolutely vital that they rebuke Trump, and support Pence’s actions on the day to explain to the electorate why they are better suited for the presidency, particularly when they are fighting his overwhelming primary support.
Vinay: Agreed, but none of them were willing to take that stand. Even DeSantis ended up looking like a Trump groupie by the end of the exchange. Only Asa Hutchinson was willing to say he wouldn’t support a Trump candidacy if he was a convicted criminal, which is why I appreciated what (admittedly little) he had to say on the subject. Everyone else lacked a certain conviction which was a bit concerning: DeSantis made a look around the stage before he raised his hand!
Lexi: You and I will likely disagree about this, but I am more sympathetic to what (I assume) is the opinion of establishment types like Nikki Haley and Tim Scott that the prosecutorial antagonizing of presidents, a culture which has persisted since the Nixon era, has more damning effects on our culture than a pardoning. Nevertheless, I think it’s indisputable that they distinguished themselves from “Trump groupies” in other ways.
Vinay: I’m glad you brought up Nikki Haley because she had an absolutely phenomenal performance. I think she toed the line between moderatism and conservatism perfectly, and that shows her promise as a general election candidate. But her hesitancy to fully lean into the rhetoric that plays to the base makes me question whether she has what it takes to make it out of the primaries. That said, she put on a masterclass in balancing practical policy with sharp wit and received a well-deserved bump in the polls for it.
Lexi: Yes … I recall our texts during the debate; I think this is the most endeared I’ve seen you be toward a Republican (even more so than you tolerate me!) Nikki Haley did have a spectacular showing. She got to debut her experience, class, and just basic literacy on the issues. There was a headline following the debate that I think summarized the situation beautifully, “Nikki Haley claimed the spotlight among crowd of ‘screaming men.’”
Vinay: To that point, her pivot from her largely uninspiring tenure as South Carolina governor to her performance on the debate stage was just phenomenal. She is frankly the only Republican candidate who doesn’t make me feel a sense of impending existential dread at their possible election. However, her showing really highlighted some of the more lackluster ones, especially DeSantis’.
Lexi: To say you feel “existential dread” about the compassionate, school-choice-obsessed, South Carolina senator, Tim Scott, being president is liberal alarmism if I’ve ever seen it, Vinay.
Vinay: Well, let’s just focus on serious candidates for now, Lexi.
Lexi: I have been very fond of Tim Scott since he was first elected, but I do think that Nikki Haley showed she may be better suited for playing the ‘conservative establishment alternative’ role than he is. Insert my woman-in-politics rant here after her fabulous Margaret Thatcher quote during the debate, but this seems to be a sentiment reflected by the general public as well. She had a significant boost in fundraising and polling support following her performance. Surprisingly, DeSantis also seemed to increase his numbers, despite what a lot of people seemed to feel was an uninspired display.
Vinay: I think “uninspired” is generous. He said quite literally nothing of note and faded into the background on many issues including abortion and climate change, both of which he was uniquely positioned to distinguish himself on. Of course, being a former/current elected official can be both a blessing and a curse, with DeSantis failing to capitalize in key moments and being outshined on more national issues by candidates like Haley.
Lexi: I would say that the DeSantis-Haley contrast really does a good job of articulating what the non-Trump future of the party could look like. DeSantis, in my view, seemed to maybe not be as exciting as a Ramaswamy-type, but he certainly is consciously not rocking the GOP boat. He is offering a less rhetorically fiery status quo, which has always been his style but was amplified by the debate. Haley, on the other hand, was “treating the Republican electorate like adults,” and offering a much more realistic approach to our pressing political issues, notably abortion.
Vinay: That’s an interesting point and now we have to address the elephant that wasn’t in the room: Trump. I think DeSantis’s status quo strategy is largely playing into Trump’s hands. By failing to differentiate himself, he’s really not drawing away any support from Trump. And frankly, there just isn’t enough demand for a non-Trump candidate for that to be a sound strategy as of right now.
Lexi: We shall see. There is a lot of uncertainty given the state of Trump’s indictment and the threats to use the 14th Amendment to prohibit him from making it onto the ballot. Logistics aside though, while Trump not attending the debate may have made it appear as an inconsequential squabble of potential vice president picks, as someone who is a self-acknowledged Republican political junkie, I enjoyed the oxygen a Trump-free room allowed, and the serious conversation about the future of the party that his absence provided.
Vinay: Leaving alone his legal woes, I agree. It was definitely an interesting debate without him, yet his influence remained very much felt if not explicitly verbalized at multiple points. I think this speaks to his continued dominance in Republican political discourse and why much of the night felt like cheap political theater when we remember he was leading by a cool 30 points at the start of the debate in some polls. Despite my most ardent desires, after this debate, I still don’t see a future where Trump is not the 2024 candidate.
Lexi: If 2016 taught anyone anything, it’s that no one can predict the future of American politics anymore. Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have a lot to decide, and there’s a lot of time that will pass in the meantime! Right now, I am sitting back and enjoying the show.
Vinay: Enjoying is a strong word — but I am definitely buckled in tight for the ride.
VINAY KHOSLA is a College junior studying english and political science from Baltimore, Md. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
LEXI BOCCUZZI is a College senior studying philosophy, politics, and economics from Stamford, Conn. Her email is email@example.com.