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Kai Wright: It's Notes from America, I'm Kai Wright. Mona Charen has been deep in conservative politics for decades as a columnist, as a speechwriter, as a strategist. Today, she is among the most vocal conservatives who consider Donald Trump a dire threat to the United States. She's the policy editor of The Bulwark and host of the podcast, Beg To Differ. Mona Charen joins me now to help understand what happened at the first debate in the Republican presidential primary which was held last week in Milwaukee. Mona, thanks for coming back on Notes from America.
Mona Charen: Oh, it's a pleasure, Kai. It's been a while since we've spoken.
Kai Wright: It has been a minute. It must be election season again.
Mona Charen: It must be, yes. [chuckles]
Kai Wright: Listeners, we'd love to hear from any conservative voters out there who are not voting for Donald Trump. Did you watch the debate? What did you think, and what are you thinking about this primary in general right now? If we've got any conservative voters listening who are not voting for Donald Trump, where is your head on the back end of this debate?
Mona, the day after the debate, you wrote a short essay in The Bulwark with your immediate reaction, and it posed a broader question than who won or lost. You asked, what do we need to limit the impact that demagogues are having on our politics? Before we talk about particular candidates, why was that your overall question watching this debate?
Mona Charen: Because I felt that the format itself encourages exactly all of the wrong tendencies. Because you have all those people on the stage, and each one-- It's a two-hour debate, there were a few breaks, there were audio intros and so on, so maximum, the most that any could expect to get of airtime was 12 minutes, and probably less than that. Built into that knowledge is the idea that you have to have a breakthrough moment, and the best way to have a breakthrough moment is to attack somebody. That's one incentive that's built-in.
The other thing that the rules encourage is, if you are personally named by another candidate, you get 30 seconds. This encourages sniping back and forth and the kind of gladiatorial nature of these contests, which has absolutely nothing to do with whether somebody is going to be a good president or not. Further, the huge studio audience, in this case, it was an arena audience, only aggravates the problem because you have the cheers and the jeers and the boos from the audience taking up time. As I said in the piece, at one point, one of the moderators, Bret Baier, had to turn around in his chair and chastise the members of the audience for their booing and cheering and saying, "Come on now, if you keep doing this, it's only going to take away from the time that I know you want to hear about, for us to get to the issues you really care about."
Kai Wright: These important policy conversations we've all come for.
Mona Charen: Yes-- By the way, yes, important policy conversations, including UFOs, which is one of the things they asked them about. So, permit me to have a spit take on that one, but the audience does encourage, again, the gladiatorial nature of these displays. Finally, how does it enable demagogues? Well, if you are a slick, fast-talking, dishonest simplifier à la Vivek Ramaswamy, in that format, there's no time really to have a back-and-forth. There's very little time for the moderators to say, for example, "Well, wait a minute, Mr. Ramaswamy, you just said you want to eliminate the Department of Education and abolish the teacher's unions. How would you do that with the authority of the presidency?" There was nothing along those lines.
If we had a different format, if we had say-- Probably eight is too many, so you divide it up. You have four people per night, and for 10 minutes, you have a Q&A with some interlocutor asking questions with follow-ups, no studio audience. I mean, other people who are more versed in television might have better ideas than mine, but it seems that something has to be substituted for these absurd [unintelligible 00:05:22] that we've been witnessing, and are unfortunately going to be subjected to again.
Kai Wright: It's Notes from America, we'll be right back.
Kai Wright: Mona Charen, we will get back to Vivek Ramaswamy, because I know you are not a fan, but he is really widely declared the "winner" of that debate last week. I want to take a caller who I think has something to say about Vivek. Alex in Brooklyn, New York. Alex, welcome to the show.
Alex: Hey, thanks for taking the call. Yes, I felt like Vivek Ramaswamy won that debate, and he came across as the most anti-establishment candidate over there. He was being hit on the most, which tells you that the candidates there think he's the most relevant. I felt like Ron DeSantis under-performed, not because he did terribly, but because he's number two after Trump in the polls, and his polls before this debate were going down slowly, and Vivek's polls numbers were going up. People in the media were saying that Ron DeSantis was going to have a really strong night, and that would help him get back up in the polls. I think since he didn't do that well, and he did really bad, because he had to do exceptionally well in order to bring himself back up and to still be number two after Trump. I think Vivek Ramaswamy is playing very well as being a candidate, and he's going to be number two, except for if he ends up having the [crosstalk]--
Kai Wright: What about for you, Alex?
Alex: For me, I think Vivek is better off. I feel like he's an original person. I know there are issues about him being anti-Israel, and a lot of Republicans are upset about his ties with George Soros, but I'd like to just have more clarity on those issues before I say that I'm not with him. I'd like to know more about him before I say I am with him, but I like the fact that he's anti-establishment. I like the fact that he has questions that a lot of people are afraid to ask. Like for instance, the situation in Ukraine--
Kai Wright: Okay. I'm going to leave it there, Alex, but thank you very much. Vivek Ramaswamy, Mona, there are many things to discuss from the debate. The fresh face part of it that Alex is talking about-- Several others on the stage, Mike Pence, Nikki Haley Chris Christie, tried to come at him as a rookie, and I think that was a compliment in the Republican primary. Tell me more about your take of what you saw of Vivek Ramaswamy on Wednesday night.
Mona Charen: Kai, you make an excellent point in that being perceived as not a politician is one of the strongest recommendations for a lot of Republicans now, so having no experience-- My friend Rick Brookhiser said many decades ago, the presidency is not an entry-level post. That's been blown to smithereens by Donald Trump. The Republican voters, and I think the previous caller was a good example, they really are attracted to the idea that somebody is an outsider and not part of the establishment, and especially if they attack the establishment.
Look, it has been the case in the Republican Party, and it's so much broader than Trump. It's the outlets on the right, it's the talk radio hosts, and Fox News, and all the other organs of right-wing opinion that encourage a belief that the Republican Party has betrayed its voters. That Republican officeholders are corrupt and very little better than Democrats, and that therefore, somebody who comes along and says they're anti-establishment has a tremendous appeal. It's something that has been brewing now for many, many decades.
I remember noticing in the 2000's, early aughts let's say, that when you would tune into talk radio, the conservative radio hosts were not railing about Democrats, they were railing about Republicans. Then you saw it with Ted Cruz who sort of encouraged this idea that if the Republicans just had the courage of their own convictions, that they could force Obama to eliminate Obamacare, his signature program. They didn't have the votes, and Ted Cruz did succeed in leading a government shutdown, but he still didn't eliminate Obamacare, but his narrative was, "Well, it's only because they didn't have enough courage." That's the narrative, and it's a very destructive very, very unfortunate idea that has taken hold, and it has encouraged a burn-it-all-down mentality in a significant part of the Republican base.
Somebody like Nikki Haley, who I thought-- I've had my problems with Nikki Haley because-- I think she's a wonderfully talented governor, I thought she handled the awful racist shooting in the State of South Carolina when she was governor. I thought she handled that really well where she explained to her state why it was necessary to remove the Confederate flag. It was a really inspiring moment actually of leadership. Then in the Trump era, at first she said she couldn't possibly support him, then she did support him, then she worked for him, then she said it was-- Anyway, she went back and forth on Trump about five different times, so I've had my trouble with her, but I have to say, the other night in that debate, she was a really impressive figure on that stage.
Kai Wright: What was she presenting new? Because I have to say, I had even-- I had at least one very liberal colleague texting me saying, "Oh, I'm cheering for Nikki Haley right now." Was there something new that Nikki Haley was doing that night?
Mona Charen: Yes, there was. One of the first things that she did when they asked a question about the debt was she said-- Of course, all the other people on the stage said it's all the fault of Biden and the Democrats, and she said, "Well, hold on a minute. Trump added $6 trillion to the national debt--" I forget the exact figure now, but in any event, that huge number, and she said it's Republicans who also contributed to this debt. We're all in this up to our eyeballs, and she said we have to be honest about that. That was the first thing I thought, "Bravo."
Also, when it came to Ukraine, and to the absurd positions that Ramaswamy has put forward like-- that we'll tell Putin that if he ends his alliance with the Chinese, he can have Ukraine, by the way, as if Ukraine is ours to give away. Also, the notion that this would be any sort of agreement that you could rely on Putin to keep. I mean, it's just ridiculous. Nikki Haley really schooled him, and she did it in a way where she kept her dignity, but she was very forceful. She didn't raise her voice and get shrill, which is always important, especially for a woman, and she really stood him down. Which again, as a woman on a stage just full of men-- And I don't tend to like this male-female comparison stuff very much. I've never been a woman power type myself, but at that moment, I wanted to say, "Good for you, Haley," because I know that's not easy.
Kai Wright: Let me ask you about gender though, because Nikki Haley has actively brought up gender in this race, which is an unexpected turn on a Republican primary stage where the leading political fight is around controlling the so-called woke left and its identity politics. So, what-- I'm not sure what my question is, other than, that was surprising to me, is it surprising to you that she's bringing that up in her campaign, and what do you think about how it's going to play in today's Republican Party?
Mona Charen: Look, here's what I think. I think she is making a conscious pitch as to think of her as a general election matchup against Biden, and don't think of her vis-à-vis Trump. Because there is still a portion of the Republican Party that wants to see somebody besides Trump, and there are several reasons for that. Some portion of the Republican Party, we're not sure how many, it's about 25%, really don't like him, emphatically do not like him. Then there's another, let's say 25%, that are open to being persuaded not to vote for him, and so it's--
Well, we really don't know exactly what the numbers are, but she's trying to say, "Look, if you feel that Trump for whatever reason, maybe unjustifiably from the point of view of Republican voters, but has too much baggage, look to me, because I'm younger, I'm female, which appeals to a lot of suburban voters. I have foreign policy experience, I was a governor, and I'm not an anti-Trump person, I worked for Trump, and so I'm your solution." By the way, I think as DeSantis' standing in the polls has been sinking over the last couple of months, the donor class has been eyeing the exits, because they were behind DeSantis in huge [crosstalk]--
Kai Wright: Who do they turn to now?
Mona Charen: Who do they turn to now? I think after the debate the other night, they have lost confidence in Tim Scott, because he was going to be the next one up. He was going to be the next alternative, and he did not do well at that debate, and she did. It's possible that the donors at least are going to give her a very hard new look. I don't know about the voters. She did seem to improve her standing with the voters, but let's face it, barring some sort of meteor crashing into the earth, Trump is going to be their nominee.
Kai Wright: Well, that's my next question, does any of this matter? We're wrapping up, we've got about a minute left to try to understand this, but what if anything matters about what happened on the stage, given where we stand with the Republican Party and Donald Trump?
Mona Charen: There were some really nice moments that I'm glad Fox viewers in particular were able to watch. One of them was when Mike Pence said, "The president asked me to put himself over the constitution, and I refused." They don't get a lot of that on Fox, so that was good to hear him say that. There were other really good moments, some brought to you by Haley, some by Christie and others. However, the most crushing moment was when the panel was asked for a show of hands about how many of the candidates on stage would still support Donald Trump even if he were a convicted felon in November of 2024, and six of the eight people on stage raised their hands.
Kai Wright: There you have it. [chuckles]
Mona Charen: That was emblematic of what a terrible shell of its former self the Republican Party has become, utterly without principles, utterly a cult, and that is very sad.
Kai Wright: We got to leave it there. Mona Charen is policy editor for The Bulwark, host of Beg to Differ podcast, veteran conservative columnist. Mona, thanks for coming back on the show, and thanks to everybody who called in. You can keep talking to us at notesfromamerica.org. Just look for the green record button and leave us a voicemail. Don't forget to include your name and where you're calling from. Notes From America is a production to WNYC Studios. A special thanks to WABE for partnering with us on tonight's show. I'm Kai Wright, and I will talk to you next Sunday.
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