For the first time in my life, I watched a Republican presidential debate from the other side. This time, I was able to dismiss minutiae that would have been obsessions sixteen, twelve, or even eight years ago. It let me see the broader theme of the night – and the party.
Past Versus Future
Without Donald Trump, taking all the oxygen out of the room – more on him later – we were able to see the past collide with the future. The governors from outside Florida (Haley, Burgum, Hutchison, and Christie) did all they could to win the 2012 Republican nomination. Unfortunately for all of them, it’s 2024.
Only one candidate on that stage seemed to understand where the GOP is going: Vivek Ramaswamy. This was the first time he could bring his Trump-mini-me act to the national stage. He did not waste it. Anyone who was a Republican in good standing in 2012 would cringe at Vivek’s avalanche of sound bites, fact-free warbling, and vigorous defense of Donald Trump.
In the process, Vivek drank Ron DeSantis’ milkshake.
Amidst the rhetorical battle between Vivek and the pre-Trumpian four, Ron was savaged in the cross-fire. Ditto Mike Pence and Tim Scott. All three of them are trying to navigate between the pro-Trump majority and the anti-Trump minority.
Clearly they didn’t hear what happens to folks who try the middle of the road.
That said, Pence at least looked and acted the part. Scott at least kept his Rube Goldberg scheme for the VP nomination intact. DeSantis? He couldn’t even follow his own debate memo. 
The Winner Who Wasn’t There
So who won? Nobody on that stage. None of the pre-Trumpian four could make a dent, no matter how much they may have impressed the rest of us. Pence and Scott couldn’t move the needle either. DeSantis did nothing to address his shortfalls.
As for Vivek, he spent most of his time making sure no one else laid a glove on “the elephant not in the room.”
None of them really stood out. All of them reinforced their images – good and bad – ensuring the field remains scattered.
Thus the winner was clearly the absent front-runner .
I was tempted to include Joe Biden as a winner, but on further thought I’ll pass. No real damage to Trump came from this debate, so Biden doesn’t gain anything.
Everyone on the stage except Vivek lost. The pre-Trumpian four gave a good effort but were up against the reality of today’s GOP. Pence, Scott, and DeSantis all failed to launch.
For Vivek, it was a push: he had a good night but came no closer to beating Trump – assuming he even wants to do so.