This is What Counts as a Zinger at a Republican “Debate”? Haley and the Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations

In their second mutated debate-nonadjacent event last week, seven of the declared Republican presidential candidates continued to degrade themselves and the country.  Why?  More than three months after Professor Dorf asked, "What Are Trump's GOP Rivals for the Nomination Hoping to Accomplish?" the answer is unchanged: Nothing in particular, as far as anyone can tell.

These events are a pet peeve of mine, and I hate even to venture into this territory.  I will thus make today's column unusually short.  More to the point, I will not review the entire event but will focus on what pundits have said was the zinger of the night, in this case from the persistently inconsistent Nikki Haley.

Not that she had any competition at all, given that the runner-up in that night's cleverness sweepstakes was Chris Christie's attempted joke that Donald Trump's ducking of the non-debates should earn him the nickname "Donald Duck."  Worse than that, after Christie later resorted to his habit of bashing schoolteachers and their unions by saying Joe Biden is "sleeping with a member of the teachers union" (Good one, Chris!), the unctuous Mike Pence managed to creep out everyone in the room with this: "I — my wife isn’t a member of the Teachers Union, but I got to admit I — I’ve been sleeping with a teacher for 38 years and a full disclosure."

Ick.  To Pence's minimal credit, however, at least his line was -- unlike Christie's Donald Duck dud -- not obviously a planned would-be zinger.  Seriously, is Christie's campaign so amateurish and lacking in anyone who will deliver bad news to their candidate that he actually went onstage thinking that he had come up with a devastating putdown?  If the goal was to be memorable, then mission accomplished.  But oy.

So let us go back to Haley's not-awful few seconds.  What was reported was this part of a longer word salad: "[H]onestly, every time I hear you I feel a little bit dumber for what you say."  She directed those words at Vivek Ramaswamy (or, as I dubbed him a few weeks ago, Fascist Eddie Haskell), but she could have said it to anyone on that stage, including herself.  Even so, it was clear that Haley was saving that line specifically for Ramaswamy/Haskell, who truly is uniquely able to say jawdroppingly stupid things at a rapid clip and with Dunning-Kruger levels of supreme, clueless self-confidence.  Minimal kudos to Haley, then, for at least choosing her target well.

The key requirement for a zinger, however, is that it should not be its own set up for a counterpunch zinger.  My immediate thought when I first read the reports of Haley's big moment was: "Why didn't he just say something like, 'Well, we should all take Nikki Haley seriously when she talks about feeling stupid, because she's the expert.'"  I am not saying that I would have thought of that if I had been on the stage, but I did think of it immediately.  I am also not saying that it was a devastatingly great response, but it does seem like it would have landed — and Haley all but asked to be insulted in response.

But what if real comedians were given the time and opportunity to write some snappy comebacks?  In the movie "Roxanne," Steve Martin's Cyrano character is bemused when a lout in a bar calls him "big nose."  Martin responds that surely a nose such as his should be able to induce much more clever insults.  The scene then has him deliver twenty such lines -- including, "Keep that guy away from my cocaine," "My God, how big was the grindstone?" and "Finally, a man who can satisfy two women at once" -- to humiliate the drunken idiot.

Similarly, on Seth Meyers's show (which is now, thankfully, back on the air), he will occasionally use one setup from the news to deliver a series of different punchlines in rapid succession.  Again, these are professional comedians and writers (some of the best), and they give themselves the time to come up with their best stuff, time that Ramaswamy/Haskell lacked (to say nothing of wit).

Even so, and without having any experience in comedy writing, I thought it would be fun to come up with a few ripostes to Haley's line, which (to remind us) was: "[H]onestly, every time I hear you I feel a little bit dumber for what you say."

  • "We just met a few weeks ago, so what explains how stupid you were before then?"
  • "And stealing a line from 'Billy Madison' makes you smart?"
  • "Well, I guess I really should shut up, because you have so little intelligence to spare."

Heck, even "You've just told me that you're dumb, and I believe you," would have at least deflated the moment.

Again, I make no claims that any of these specific counter-zingers would be used by a real comedian.  My immediate point, however, is that it is rather sad that Haley "won the night" by saying something that could -- and should -- have been shot down and turned back against her fairly easily.

But the much more important point is that Haley is a terrible politician and would be a worse President.  She changes her position constantly, even on the biggest issues -- saying, for example, that she could not support Trump, then saying that she did, then saying that she would run for President if he did not run, and finally running against him.  She wants to be the adult in the room, but in answer to the question (at the previous non-debate) of whether any of the candidates would support Trump even if her were a convicted felon, she lost out only to Ramaswamy/Haskell in the race to raise her hand.

There is no moderation in Haley's views, even though she tries to deflect questions by saying, for example, that the Senate would never pass a nationwide abortion ban, which she uses as an excuse not to take a position on the question.  She repeats the lie that Democrats (including "Kamala and Biden," in her weird wording) favor abortions at "37, 38, 39 weeks," and she is all in on the "woke" thing, stuck on trans kids playing high school sports and "gender pronoun classes in the military."

Here is a quick rundown of only some of her stated views (taken from a TV interview with a NeverTrump Republican discussing Haley):

  • wants to criminalize abortion
  • would withdraw from the Paris Agreement
  • would eliminate subsidies for renewable energy
  • doesn't support financial aid to Ukraine
  • supports a "catch and deport" immigration policy
  • would limit birthright citizenship
  • would pardon Trump
  • supports the impeachment inquiry into Biden
  • says transgender rights are a threat to women
  • calls herself a union-buster

Some of that is standard post-Reagan (and, as to the last point, prime Reagan-era) ultraconservative Republicanism, but a lot of it is no different from Trump’s or Ron DeSantis's culture wars on steroids.  In the neverending quest for the press to find "moderates," however, Haley is the latest to benefit from the media's self-induced amnesia.

The desire to turn her into something that she is not is so strong, in fact, that everyone was willing not to notice that her big zinger was in fact a huge non sequitur, part of a rant about TikTok.  Seriously, this is the full sentence-like series of words from which Haley's zinger was extracted:

This is infuriating because TikTok is one of the most dangerous social media apps that we could have and what you’ve got — honestly, every time I hear you I feel a little bit dumber for what you say because I can’t believe they hear you got a TikTok situation.

Again, Ramaswamy/Haskell is a dangerous fool, and his prior answer had dodged a question about TikTok, but even so, Haley's line was off point and poorly delivered.  But someone has to be treated with unearned respect in the Republican primaries, it seems.   Evidently, it is currently Haley's turn.