I wish Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis had shown a quarter as much contempt for Donald Trump as they did for each other.
Oh, they faulted Trump for not appearing onstage in Des Moines on Wednesday for the final Republican presidential debate before the Iowa caucuses. He arrogantly skipped it, just as he’d arrogantly skipped all the others.
When pressed, Haley and DeSantis made clearer than they did in the past that he indeed put himself before the Constitution when he tried to overturn the results of the 2020 election and that what happened on Jan. 6, 2021, was no beautiful display of patriotism. It was a shameful act of disorder.
And they had scattered other criticisms of the former president. DeSantis listed many of the promises that Trump didn’t keep. Haley blamed Trump for the depth and breadth of the divisions in America and for creating a degree of chaos that forbids meaningful progress.
But those complaints all but receded behind their furious, puerile and relentless attacks on each other. And that made neither political nor moral sense.
Haley and DeSantis are the only candidates other than Trump who qualified for the debate. They are the only candidates with any chance of beating him in the Republican primaries and getting the party’s presidential nomination. But that chance is meager, the clock is ticking, and Trump, to go by polls, has held on firmly to his enormous lead. They need to take him down.
And for all their considerable flaws, all their embarrassing flubs and all their elaborate fudging of their records, both Haley and DeSantis have infinitely less to account and apologize for than Trump does. He’s the necessary target of their wrath, the rightful recipient of their disdain, an urgent threat to American democracy. But you wouldn’t have known that from the small fraction of their attention that he received, an inadequate measure that distills the Republican Party’s disgrace. It won’t own or slay the monster it created. It’s just too damned terrified.
Instead, Haley and DeSantis engaged in a rubber-glue back-and-forth about who was the bigger liar. I can recap almost the entire debate in just a few lines of loosely (but not all that loosely!) paraphrased dialogue.
Haley: Stop lying about me!
DeSantis: No, you stop lying about me!
Haley: You’re the liar!
DeSantis: I know you are, but what am I?
Haley: You’re so desperate. You’re just so desperate.
Haley actually said those last two sentences. And they were strangely refreshing inasmuch as they weren’t one of her endlessly repeated instructions to go to the website desantislies.com. She mentioned that site seemingly every 30 seconds, regardless of what question the debate’s moderators had put to her. She was like a broken GPS system. No matter where you asked her to take you, she directed you to the same old place.
DeSantis wasn’t any more high-minded. He banged on and on about what a sellout Haley was, about how she was constantly caving to big business or “the woke mob” or the Chinese. He was especially and inexplicably fond of a line that he used in various ways at various times — that she embodied the “pale pastels” of “warmed-over corporatism.” Was he upset that her corporatism wasn’t freshly sautéed? Was he claiming a sartorial edge and asserting some parable in the contrast between his red tie and her muted pink dress? Color me unimpressed.
Except for when DeSantis, whose scripted lines were mostly clichés, delivered one of anomalous cleverness. Referring to Haley’s recent string of highly publicized gaffes, he said, “She’s got this problem with ballistic podiatry — shooting herself in the foot.”
Funny as that was, it was even sadder because it was an example of how and where these two candidates lavished their energy: not on sounding the alarm about Trump that needs sounding (and re-sounding), not on holding themselves up as inspiring alternatives to him but on cutting each other down. That was clearly what they’d practiced most. Scorn was their comfort zone.
So when they were asked, in the final minutes, to name something about the other that they admired, they lapsed into babble and incoherence.
After a few compulsory words about Haley’s service as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, DeSantis said: “I also appreciate the state of South Carolina. My wife is a College of Charleston graduate.” So Haley is admirable because she’s proximal to Casey DeSantis’s alma mater?
Haley’s answer — “I think he’s been a good governor” — made even less sense, because she had just spent the better part of two hours talking about all the ways in which he’d been a terrible leader for Florida and how awful it would be if he molded America in his state’s image.
They did indeed engage in specifics like that, providing details about their own and each other’s records, establishing an important divergence in their views on aid to Ukraine, forecasting the future of Social Security and promising to fortify the country’s southwestern border. From time to time, the two of them engaged in something not all that dissimilar from a constructive old-fashioned debate.
But that was the exception to the rule and to the rancor, and what stood out more than any policy discussion was a depressing paradox: Both of them said that America needed to turn the page, but both modeled the negativity, mockery and spite of the country’s current chapter.
“How did you blow through $150 million in your campaign, and you were down in the polls?” Haley asked DeSantis. She visibly relished her dig. Where was that ridicule for Trump?
Chris Christie, we miss you! Hours before the debate, which Christie hadn’t qualified for, he dropped out of the race, and he was caught in a hot mic moment, apparently dismissing Haley as “not up to this” and saying that DeSantis was “petrified” about the trajectory of the race. Their performances on Wednesday night bore Christie out. Send him to Delphi and put him in a cave. He’s an oracle.
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