INTERVIEW — GOP Scorecard: Debatable

By Reuvain Borchardt

(Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

Adam Guillette spoke with Hamodia last week Thursday about the GOP primary debate held the previous night.

Guillette is the president of Accuracy in Media, a conservative watchdog group that describes itself as using “citizen activism and investigative journalism to expose media bias, corruption, and public policy failings.”

He is also a distinguished faculty member at the Leadership Institute, which trains young conservative activists.

Guillette previously founded the Florida chapter of Americans for Prosperity, and was a vice president of Project Veritas.

Who, if anyone, do you think won last night’s debate?

I don’t think there was a definitive winner, except perhaps Trump, because there was no definitive winner. To me, no candidate really stood out so much and made such a name for themselves that Trump will have regretted not appearing.

I think people assumed Trump would come up a lot more in the debate than he did. Around the midway point of the debate, there was a 13-minute segment in which they discussed Trump, his legal troubles, and January 6, but other than that segment he was not mentioned much. Did you think that his name would come up more?

Absolutely. The question for me ahead of time was, “Are they going to pile up on DeSantis or are they going to pile up on Trump?” And really, it was neither. I was surprised at how little Trump got attacked, given that they’re all so far behind him.

Do you think that’s because Trump has such support in the Republican Party that the other candidates are afraid that attacking Trump would be suicide?

No, I think it’s because many of them are more traditional, old-school politicians who used an old-school approach, which didn’t benefit them: It was a lot of, “I’m from a small town, I come from this family, my wife is this or my daughter is that,” and less substantively about what they’ve actually done, what they’re going to do, what other people did that was right or wrong.

Adam Guillette

The most unorthodox candidate is probably Vivek Ramaswamy — who might also be the biggest Trump cheerleader in the GOP field.

That’s true. And I heard he had the most Google-search increases of any candidate during the debate. And he also spoke more than just about anybody during the debate. And he didn’t take that approach. He was more aggressive. He was more outspoken. But again, for me, it’s a tricky scenario with someone like Ramaswamy, because he has no record. He can tell you whatever you want to hear, because we can’t say whether he’s lying about the things he wants to do. There’s no proof of it.

As you mentioned earlier, not only was there no big pileup on Trump, but DeSantis, the leading candidate of those onstage, wasn’t attacked much, either. Why do you think that was?

Great question, because I really did think he would get attacked more. But he’s the opposite of Ramaswamy. He’s got a record that is stellar for Republican primary voters. What are you going to attack him on? As governor, he basically ran laps around all the other Republican governors in terms of accomplishing things that you would like to see from a presidential candidate. So where could they have hit him?

What did you think of DeSantis’ debate performance? 

DeSantis isn’t known for being a great retail politician. He’s not known for being an excellent speaker. So my expectations for him were relatively low going into the debate. And I think he outperformed my expectations. He seemed a bit more dynamic. But really, a debate isn’t the kind of place where he does best.

If you look at the facts and statistics of who has accomplished what, DeSantis shines. If you want somebody who’s a great talker and has a wonderful, captivating story about their family, DeSantis is less interesting to some people. So a debate is not the ideal place for him. He does better when he’s actually in office governing, signing things into law, and voting as a congressman. He’s better on paper than in person.

On that note, how much do you think debates affect elections?

Unfortunately, in primaries I think they generally affect them quite a bit. Human beings are creatures of emotion, not creatures of logic. They don’t pick their candidates by carefully weighing evidence, like a judge and a jury. They pick their candidates based on emotional reasons, and then search for facts to back up the decision that they’ve already made. So the emotional arguments people make in the debates, the stories about their family and overcoming adversity and this and that, can matter far more than their actual record.

A CNN analysis shows that Mike Pence had the most airtime, followed by Ramaswamy and Chris Christie, who were virtually tied, and then DeSantis. A lot of Pence’s airtime was him interrupting, which seems out of character for Pence. What did you think about the amount of airtime that the candidates got? Who was more reticent and who was more aggressive?

Pence is about the most polite guy out there; I’m sure he has by now sent a handwritten apology note to anybody he interrupted!

The candidates weren’t going after each other much — with the exception of Chris Christie, who obviously lives for these sorts of moments. He was more than happy to go after Ramaswamy, who I’m sure ate it up.

Ramaswamy and Christie seemed to be most in attack mode.

Last night was the first time many people have seen Ramaswamy. What impression do you think he made on those viewers who were just introduced to him?

He was certainly interesting. He’s captivating, charismatic, and he’s got a great personality. And again, debates are more about personalities than about policies and issues and records. And he has no record, so if he’s elected you have no idea if he’s somebody who stands by his words. So you just don’t know what you’re going to get with him other than charisma.

Is charisma enough to win higher office?

Barack Obama would say yes. He was a senator for a half an hour and a state rep for a week.

Are you surprised none of the other candidates mentioned Christie’s Bridgegate scandal? Is it because they don’t feel threatened by Christie because he’s so low in the polls?

That’s a great question. I think it’s a combination: They don’t feel threatened by him; they’re afraid to hit him because they know he’ll hit back; and it’s an old issue.

It would be like bringing up the fact that Trump has spent most of his career and adult life as a Democrat, almost ran for president as a Reform Party candidate, and had the Clintons attend one of his weddings. We all know that about Trump, but it’s an old issue, so it doesn’t get talked about as much.

Assuming Trump gets the nomination, two candidates who had seemed to be potential choices for vice president were Tim Scott and Nikki Haley. But Haley’s tweaked Trump a bit lately, talking about the need for Republicans to bring in new young leaders, so maybe’s she’s burned that bridge. Scott still seems well positioned for veep.

I would think that anybody at the debate who’s even considering being Trump’s vice president should have a conversation with Pence about how that experience went for him.

Haley tussled with Ramaswamy over foreign policy. He has some opinions on foreign policy, like cutting aid to Israel, that may not be shared by many Republicans.

Ramaswamy’s foreign policy experience is traveling first class around the world. He’s probably had more fun in foreign policy, but doesn’t actually have any political experience there. Nikki Haley certainly does. But again, in a presidential primary debate, it’s about personality, rather than real experience. And I think Ramaswamy has got personality in spades.

A lot of people seem to be pretty happy with Nikki Haley’s debate performance. But I think for many candidates on a number of issues, she’s too moderate for Republican primary voters.

I was chatting earlier today with a friend in politics about Scott, and he said Scott may be the most substantive, least political, and most boring of all the candidates. What do you think of Scott?

That’s such a great description. And it’s such an excellent contrast from Ramaswamy, because Scott has an excellent conservative record. You know where he stands; he’s competent.

But he doesn’t have all of the charisma of Vivek. With Vivek, you have charisma but no record; you have no idea what you’re getting, if he’s a phony, if he’s a fighter, or what he is.

Scott had about the least amount of airtime other than Asa Hutchinson and the guy from North Dakota [Doug Burgum] who’s already been forgotten. And it’s a shame, because Scott has an excellent record for Republican primary voters.

Scott didn’t interrupt or yell out; he just politely answered the questions he was asked. That’s not a good way to get airtime on an eight-candidate stage.


How do you think Martha MacCallum and Bret Baier did as moderators? Were the questions fair, were they even-handed, did they have control of the floor?

It’s always easier to moderate when Donald Trump isn’t there. They did a perfectly adequate job, and it was an interesting debate.

To meet the donor threshold for the debate, Burgum and Hutchinson gave $20 gift cards to people who donated or got others to donate as little as $1. Do you think that should be allowed? And should networks change the minimum requirements for debates so that we don’t have candidates who have no chance at the nomination taking airtime from those who do?

I think it’s reasonable early on to have a wider pool of people on the stage. And after people have had their shot, narrow it down a little bit for future debates.

The loudest booing of the night came when Christie bashed Trump. Hutchinson was also booed for bashing Trump. So even without Trump in the building, it appears he has a stranglehold on GOP voters. Do you see any way — whether because of an indictment, or conviction, or anything else — that Trump does not get the nomination?

We don’t have any idea really what the landscape is going to look like early next year, and what Trump’s legal fights are going to look like. And if every day, DeSantis or Tim Scott are out on the campaign trail while Trump is sitting in courtrooms, I think people might start to focus — perhaps — on policy rather than personality. And, hopefully, at that point, people will talk more about Trump’s record from his final year in office, when he left Fauci in charge of the pandemic, when he bullied governors who wanted to reopen their states, when he dramatically increased federal spending; and added $8 trillion to the debt. I think it’s possible that that could change things.

I know you’re not going to make endorsements. But it sounds like you want someone other than Trump to win.

I care about policy, not politicians. And I think circumstance often ends up mattering more than the people who are in place. And I’m just skeptical of all politicians. I think that politicians are ugly actors. If they were better-looking, they would be reading lines in Hollywood. Instead, they’re doing it in D.C. The focus needs to be on advancing our ideas, instead of joining a cult of personality, and that applies to any elected official.

By the way, I should add, all my comments here are my own opinions, and don’t necessarily reflect those of Accuracy in Media.

Does it bother you that most Republicans support a candidate who is more about personality than policy? 

I think it’s consistent with American politics, that’s focused more on personality than policy.

Moving on to the general election: What do you think happens if it’s Trump vs. Biden? And do Trump’s legal issues have any effect?

It’s too far in advance to say what news coverage of Donald Trump in a courtroom every day will do to the electorate.

It’s undeniable that we’ve had three consecutive elections where Trump and his statewide candidates have dramatically underperformed, whereas at the exact same time, you’ve had candidates like DeSantis who’ve had fantastic wins. So the numbers from the last three elections speak for themselves.

Do you think Democrats want Biden to run for reelection? Any way he doesn’t make it?

Almost every four years we see the same recycled stories about whether the incumbent is going to be dropped. Or the vice president will be dropped. Or some big third-party candidate will shake up the race. And that pretty much never happens.

Barring a major health shock, I doubt that will happen in 2024.

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