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Live from Simi Valley: A Hot Mess of a Debate Peter Savodnik

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Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy on stage Wednesday night. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library sits on a stately, sun-dappled perch enveloped by green hills and gorgeous vistas. It is a magical place that evokes the fortieth president’s boundless optimism and feels a lot like the movie sets where he made his name. 

The knock against the Republican debate that took place here last night is that it was just that: make-believe. 

That was the subtext of former President Donald Trump—who enjoys the support of nearly 60 percent of GOP voters versus the 16 percent who back his closest rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis—skipping the debate.

While Trump was thousands of miles away, in Michigan, the other seven candidates seemed a little like people playing president—debating fentanyl and the southern border and China and mental health care—not running for the presidency.

Trump said as much Wednesday evening during a speech to auto workers near Detroit.

“All over television this speech, you know, we’re competing with the job candidates. They’re all running for a job,” Trump said, not bothering to name any of the Republicans trying to wrest the nomination from him. “Now they’re job candidates.” He added: “They’ll do anything. . . secretary of something, they even say vice president. Has anybody seen a vice president in that group? I don’t think so.”

Trump at Drake Enterprises, an auto parts manufacturer and supplier, in Clinton, Michigan, on September 27, 2023. (Matthew Hatcher / AFP via Getty Images)

The day after President Biden joined striking workers on the picket line, bullhorn in hand, Trump lashed out at the president’s record on labor: “Joe Biden claims to be the most pro-union president in history.” He continued: “His entire career has been an act of economic treason and union destruction. He’s destroyed unions, shipping millions of American jobs overseas while personally taking money from foreign nations hand over fist.”

That Trump’s would-be rivals were debating in the presidential library of the man who crushed the air traffic controllers’ 1981 strike and ushered in the era of supply-side economics—while Trump was vying for the support of auto workers in a key battleground state—only underscored that the real showdown was happening elsewhere. 

“This is a sideshow,” California’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, said Wednesday about the debate. (Apparently, it wasn’t that much of a sideshow. Newsom made time to swing by the Reagan Library for an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, who will be moderating a debate between Newsom and DeSantis in November.)

But despite all this—despite Trump having apparently locked up his party’s nomination, despite Biden apparently having locked up his party’s nomination—roughly 60 percent of Americans do not want a 2020 rematch; 67 percent of Democratic or Democratic-leaning voters do not want to see Biden on the ballot; nearly 75 percent of voters worry about the president’s mental state; and 65 percent feel “exhausted” when they think of politics. 

Voters of all political stripes, and I am one of them, dread watching the two old men—Biden is 80; Trump, 77—battle it out. They dread the polarization, the ugliness, the stale ideas, the stale language. They want to know how America transcends this impasse. 

They are waiting, hoping—praying—that someone catches fire, charts a new vision. 

Nobody on the debate stage achieved what Reagan did when he said: “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Nobody sounded like a visionary. It seems unlikely that, in forty years, future wannabe presidents will face off in a library dedicated to any of the people onstage. 

So what stuck out? A few things.

Vivek Ramaswamy in the spin room after the debate. (Gilbert Flores/Variety via Getty Images)

A Kinder, Gentler Vivek

Before the debate, we spoke to someone close to the Ramaswamy campaign who assured us we’d see a “different” Vivek tonight. What did he mean by different? “Well, a bit less of an asshole.”

“I’m the new guy here, and so I know I have to earn your trust,” a kinder, gentler version of Ramaswamy insisted tonight. “What do you see? You see a young man who’s in a bit of a hurry? Maybe a little ambitious. . . a bit of a know-it-all, it seems, at times? I’m here to tell you, no, I don’t know it all. I will listen. I will have the best people, the best and brightest in this country, whatever age they are, advising me.”

Invoking Reagan, Ramaswamy added: “The divide is not between the Republicans on the stage at the Reagan Library. I want to say these are good people on this stage.”

If we got a fighter in the first debate, last night we got more of the “happy warrior” that Reagan so ably embodied. But if Ramaswamy tried to be Reaganesque in terms of style, he was entirely unlike the Gipper when it came to his economic views.

“I don’t have a lot of patience for the union bosses,” Ramaswamy said, referring to the UAW. “But I have a lot of sympathy for the workers.”

He then pivoted to an attack on Jack Welch, the famed CEO of General Electric and champion of Reaganomics. “My father stared down layoffs at GE under Jack Welch,” Ramaswamy said. He added that his mother had to work overtime in nursing homes in southwest Ohio “to make ends meet and pay off our home loan.”

Later, sounding more like a traditional Republican, Ramaswamy said: “I understand that hardship is not a choice. Victimhood is a choice, and we choose to be victorious.”

It was, to be fair to Ramaswamy and all the other Republicans onstage, an awkward situation—standing in a shrine to free markets while trying to appeal to the working-class voters who tend to favor Trump and clamoring for the breakout moment they all desperately need. 

Haley Draws Blood

“Honestly, every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber.” 

If there was a line of the night, that might have been it, and it was delivered by Nikki Haley to Ramaswamy in an exchange about whether the Chinese-owned social media platform TikTok should be banned. Ramaswamy defended being on the platform (“I have a radical idea for the Republican Party: we need to win elections. Part of how we win elections is reaching the next generation of young Americans where they are.”) Haley called bullshit: “TikTok is one of the most dangerous social media assets that we can have.” 

Our favorite part of this campaign so far is the Haley-Ramaswamy rivalry. We’d love a roadshow. Or a reality show.

Hat tip to Carlos Lozada, longtime book critic for The Washington Post and now The New York Times, for spotting this delicious tidbit: Haley blurbed Ramaswamy’s 2021 book, Woke, Inc., praising him for “speak[ing] the truth without fear.” Perfect.

Chris Christie—Still Shadowboxing

The former New Jersey governor’s entire campaign is about prosecuting the former president. But it’s hard to do that—and win over Trump’s voters. Which may be why he’s polling at just shy of 3 percent. 

Anyway, tonight, in the absence of boxing Trump, he tried shadowboxing him.

“I know you’re watching,” Christie said, looking into the camera and apparently speaking directly to Trump (who was busy giving his speech at the time). “You’re not here tonight because you’re afraid of being on the stage and defending your record. . . you’re ducking these things,” Christie said. “You keep doing that, no one here’s going to call you Donald Trump anymore. We’re going to call you Donald Duck.” 

The line, clearly carefully rehearsed, dropped like a lead balloon even in the press room—not exactly a group of people who are inclined toward the former president.

Cringe from Mike Pence

This was a cringe-y night, but we have to give the award for the most skin-crawling line to former Vice President Mike Pence who, in an attempted riposte to Chris Christie, who tried to knock Biden for “sleeping with a teacher,” said: “I’ve been sleeping with a teacher for 38 years. . . full disclosure”—before pivoting to “the aged and the unborn.” (Recall that this is a man who calls his wife “Mother.”)

Mr. Pence faces a nearly impossible task: distancing himself from Trump while not distancing himself too much while also playing the part of social conservative in a country (if not a party) that seems much less taken with social conservatives these days. All of this explains why he’s polling at just below 5 percent. And he’s the former vice president. 

DeSantis Gets Better 

Having failed to deliver on sky-high expectations for his campaign, Ron DeSantis has been the most disappointing candidate of the primary so far. The Florida governor’s showing last night was certainly an improvement on his bloodless and stilted appearance in the first debate.

For one thing, he was more self-assured. Instead of resorting to the verbal pyrotechnics of the Christie campaign, DeSantis said simply of Trump: “He should be on this stage tonight. He owes it to you to defend his record,” accusing the former president of being “missing in action.” 

But DeSantis needed more than a modest improvement on his last outing if he was to reclaim his status as the only viable alternative to Trump. (And he still needs to do something about that awkward smile.) 

A Trump supporter outside the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Did Last Night’s Slugfest Change Anything?

“The question is, what did they do to cut into Donald Trump’s lead?” asked Republican pollster and former Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway in an interview with The Free Press after the debate. “He’s like a hologram hovering over the whole place, and he doesn’t even need to be here. . . . I think they’re all trying to make a moment. They’re trying to be funny. Reach for the rafters, get a big headline. But that’s not the way you overtake a 40-point lead.” 

Senior Trump adviser Chris LaCivita tweeted, predictably enough, “Tonight’s GOP debate was as boring and inconsequential as the first debate, and nothing that was said will change the dynamics of the primary contest being dominated by President Trump.”

All of that may be true—after the two-hour debate ended, there did not appear to be much consensus about any of the candidates onstage soaring ahead of the pack. But that doesn’t do anything to mitigate the fear and anger of countless Americans who want to know how their country moves forward. Those Americans who have watched opiates and automation and economic stratification and cultural upheaval and fears of election tampering and disinformation (and disinformation about the disinformation) tear apart the body politic and want to know if, how, and when America can return to some semblance of normalcy.

In a moment that seemed to capture that yearning—after a moderator asked the debaters who among them should be “voted off the island” to avoid another Trump administration—DeSantis replied: “I’ll decline to do that, with all due respect. I mean, we’re here—we are happy to debate. I think that is disrespectful to my fellow competitors. Let’s talk about the future of the country.”

Stay tuned: We’ll have an episode of Honestly up later today, which we recorded in the spin room after the debate and at the Trump rally in Michigan.

And a reminder: your support allows us to do our work. It allows us to show up in person, to speak to candidates, to hear from voters—to do real journalism. To those of you who already pay $8 a month: thank you. To those of you who love what we do but haven’t yet become paid subscribers? Today’s a great day to join The Free Press:

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Letters to the Editor: America Doesn’t Respect Teachers The Free Press

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“Society holds the teaching profession in such low esteem, which has led to a massive teacher shortage,” writes one reader. (Photo by Ken Hively/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

“How can public schools at once be hotbeds of radicalism, yet produce students who are so poorly informed about radical causes?” 

This was the central question of Robert Pondiscio’s piece, published June 12: “How Public Schools Became Ideological Boot Camps.”

His answer is that every day, material that hasn’t been officially approved is put in front of children. Here, the founder and president of the Academy for Teachers, Sam Swope, offers an alternative theory, and argues that Robert’s solution—greater oversight—would only make things worse:

Robert Pondiscio argues that because there’s so little oversight of what teachers teach, teachers do whatever they want, and what they want is always bad. 

There’s more than a grain of truth to that, but his call for stricter oversight and less autonomy for teachers isn’t going to solve the problem. It will make things worse.

Our core problem is that society holds the teaching profession in such low esteem, which has led to a massive teacher shortage, meaning principals are scraping the bottom of the barrel, desperate for any warm body to stand in front of a classroom. Not surprisingly, most new hires don’t last. For kids, this is a disaster: school is a parade of one inexperienced teacher after another. 

Schools are looking for smart, creative, empathic teachers, who can be trusted—indeed, expected—to bring their personal passion and intelligence to the work. Of course the schools provide oversight, but they want to be able to respect their teachers as professionals. (Sure, there will be teachers who are bad actors, but you deal with them.)

And yet, given an increasingly weak teaching force, I understand the urge for stringent, distrustful oversight. I can also understand, even as I cringe at the thought, the urge to mandate curricula. At least then some learning might happen!

But a stringent, distrustful, mandated approach is intolerable for the best teachers, and it will make a teaching career repellent to smart, young, idealistic people eager for a profession where they can shine.

There are two urgent problems in education to solve: how to retain our best teachers, and how to encourage inspired young people to join the profession. 

—Sam Swope

Last month, we gave over an episode of Honestly to one of the most contentious debates of the moment: Is Israel’s War Just? Free Pressers Eli Lake and Michael Moynihan argued yes; arguing otherwise were former Bernie Sanders press secretary Briahna Joy Gray and Jake Klein, editor of The Black Sheep. (The debate originally took place at Dissident Dialogues, in partnership with UnHerd.)

Recently, Rabbi Hayim Leiter was listening to this episode in his car while driving to work. There’s something he wants Gray and Klein to know.

I’m based in Efrat, in the West Bank, but I recently traveled to Tel Aviv for a meeting. As is my practice on long drives, I was listening to an Honestly episode, a recording of a live debate entitled, “Is Israel’s War Just?” Right up my alley.

The panelists were all over each other, passionately debating the issue, when Briahna Joy Gray said Israel should not be a Jewish state. She said all of the Arabs should have the right of return and Israel should become a democracy devoid of religious identity. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

Then, suddenly: “CRITICAL—Rocket and missile fire.” A Home Front Command notification appeared on my phone. This meant I had less than a minute to get out of my car and lie down with my hands over my head. Now, I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Rockets in Tel Aviv? The middle of the country had been quiet for months. 

BOOM, BOOM, BOOM: the explosions were instantaneous and directly overhead. I hadn’t even had time to pull over. I suppose sometimes the Home Front Command warnings are delayed. Thank God the Iron Dome response wasn’t. No one was killed, but later I heard there was a woman injured by shrapnel not far from where I was.

As the dust settled, my focus returned to the podcast. “The right of return is what will ultimately lead to peace,” Gray reiterated. I wanted to yank her out of the radio and sit her next to me. “Do you see that?” I’d ask her, pointing at the smoke trails in the sky. “That’s a rocket.” 

It’s so easy to argue about this war from the safety of America, where the problem is almost always Israel: if only we’d done more of this or less of that. But very few people spend time thinking about what’s happening here, right now. They have no idea what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a Qassam rocket.

I managed to pull myself together and head to my meeting and then to officiate a wedding an hour north of Tel Aviv, in Zichron Yaakov. As we prepared to sign the Ketubah, my phone continued to ring with additional rocket warnings across the country. It’s unnerving knowing that the Huppah could be interrupted at any moment by air-raid sirens. But somehow you press on, praying you won’t have to face that reality.

—Rabbi Hayim Leiter

On Saturday, we ran a piece by Larissa Phillips about what city kids learn at her “farm camp” in upstate New York—important lessons like “Cuts, scrapes, and stings aren’t really a big deal.”

Beneath it, we asked you: How did you spend your childhood vacations? What are the lessons school simply can’t teach you?

Here’s what you said:

My family moved from our prairie home in Saskatchewan to the east coast when I was 5. But every summer we popped on a flight from Saint John, via Toronto or Winnipeg, to Saskatoon. From there it was another five-hour drive north, to where the pavement turned to dirt. In our hometown, we literally lived at the end of the road. 

My grandparents had a cabin, a solitary lease lot in a provincial park, with no neighbors save for the reservation across the lake and a campground five kilometers up the shore. My summers were spent at that cabin with nothing but a canoe, and the odd cousin or friend if I was lucky. There were no cell phones, just loons, leeches, and occasional lightning strikes.

Here, I learned about the forces of nature. I canoed to the middle of the lake, the size of a small sea, during a thunderstorm, and had to make it back against three-foot whitecaps. I discovered that you should not cross the path of a protective mommy beaver, unless you want the bow of your canoe attacked. Most importantly, I learned self-reliance and the value of boredom—to take in the gift of hours alone.

The nights of powwow drumming across the lake while we sat with the campfire will never leave me. Nor the chipmunk that stole my sunflower seeds.

—Jarod Farn-Guillette, Brewer, Maine

I spent seven amazing summers as a camper in Northern Ontario. My family wasn’t rich. My father, an immigrant tailor, only got two weeks of vacation. But my parents knew it was important for me to experience a place different from my home; they sacrificed to send me to summer camp. It was almost six decades ago, but I still remember my mother begging the director for financial assistance.

I learned everything there: how to build a fire, how to swim, how to get along in a cabin with 14 other boys and no bathroom. Peeing off the cabin porch in the middle of the night without waking the counselors was another acquired skill. I not only grew; I grew up. That brief time away from my parents was enough to change me, and they commented on that change every year when I returned home. When I was too old to be a camper, I became a waiter at the camp, my first paying job.

I met my wife at that camp when I was a teenager, and 56 years later we are still together and still talk about our experiences. Looking back, I am amazed at how random choices have such a huge impact on one’s life. Who and where would I be without those summers? When I visit my parents’ graves, I thank them for the opportunities they gave me. I like to think that I raised my sons with the same degree of independence, and that they, in their own time, will pass it on to my grandchildren.

—Sheldon Meingarten, Toronto, Canada

Do you have a unique perspective on a Free Press story? Can you bring your personal experience or expertise to bear on an issue we cover? We want to hear from you. Send us a letter to the editor: letters@thefp.com.

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June 18, 2024 Heather Cox Richardson

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My First Job, at the Stanford Internet Observatory Julia Steinberg

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Like a zillion other bright-eyed Stanford undergrads, I was drawn to work at a place that promised I’d “learn about the abuse of the internet in real time,” writes Julia Steinberg. (Photo by David Madison/Getty Images)

The Stanford Internet Observatory—a research center tasked with rooting out “misinformation” on social media—is shutting its doors. Chances are if you’ve heard of the SIO it was in a scathing piece from Michael Shellenberger or Matt Taibbi, who have accused the center of being a key node in the censorship-industrial complex.

It was also my first employer. Like a zillion other bright-eyed Stanford undergrads, I was drawn to work at a place that promised to “learn about the abuse of the internet in real time, to develop a novel curriculum on trust and safety that is a first in computer science, and to translate our research discoveries into training and policy innovations for the public good.” To me, that meant ending internet abuse like the glamorization of anorexia on social media or financial scams that steal billions every year. But mostly I worked on the Election Integrity Partnership (EIP), which SIO ran during the 2020 and 2022 elections. The purpose of that project was to identify so-called “fake news” spreading on social media. 

In actuality, SIO hired a load of interns to scan social media for posts deemed to be mis- and disinformation. It turns out that the posts we students flagged were often sent along to moderators at Twitter (now X), Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok, which took them down in order to quash dissenting viewpoints—viewpoints that sometimes ended up being right, as in the case of Covid likely being the result of a lab leak, or Hunter Biden’s hard drive being his actual hard drive—not Russian disinformation. 

Thanks to the work of independent journalists, the SIO’s work has come under a lot of scrutiny, including in Washington. A recent House Judiciary Committee report alleges that, by cooperating with the Department of Homeland Security, the SIO’s Election Integrity Partnership “provided a way for the federal government to launder its censorship activities in hopes of bypassing both the First Amendment and public scrutiny.” 

The SIO has stated that “Stanford has not shut down or dismantled SIO as a result of outside pressure. SIO does, however, face funding challenges as its founding grants will soon be exhausted.” But on June 13, Platformer reported that much of SIO’s staff was on the way out: “Its founding director, Alex Stamos, left his position in November. Renee DiResta, its research director, left last week after her contract was not renewed. One other staff member’s contract expired this month, while others have been told to look for jobs elsewhere, sources say.”

The Supreme Court will soon rule on a case, Murthy v. Missouri, that addresses whether the U.S. government should be able to collaborate with social media companies to censor commentary. The plaintiffs, in their brief, lambast SIO for its role in abetting government censorship. We’ll be watching that case closely.

Julia Steinberg is an intern at The Free Press. Read her piece on the college dropout who unlocked the secrets of ancient Rome using AI. And follow her on X @Juliaonatroika.

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