Why Vivek Ramaswamy Could Crush It at the First Republican Debate
The winner of next week’s first Republican primary debate is likely to be the candidate who exceeds expectations. So the bar is very high for someone like Ron DeSantis, who started the campaign with a lot of name ID, buckets of money, and a ton of buzz.
The bar is very low, however, for someone like Vivek Ramaswamy, the entrepreneur who has no previous political experience to his name, and virtually zero name recognition.
But there’s no selling him short. He’s a Harvard- and Yale-educated son of Indian immigrants and he made millions in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries. He’s also so unabashedly pro-Trump it can often seem like he’s campaigning not for the top slot but for a position in a Trump cabinet. Starting with his fawning, almost breathless praise for the guy. Starting with his posture that seems to out-Trump Donald Trump himself. Starting with a commitment, if he’s elected, to pardon the former president. Full stop.
Ramaswamy’s policy ideas are wacky—and out of sync with his own personal narrative. Despite being only 38 years old (just three years over the Constitution’s minimum age limit to hold the highest office in the land), he wants to raise the voting age to 25 unless the 18-year-old can pass a citizenship test or has served for six months in the military or as a first responder. Despite his own family’s immigrant history, he wants to eliminate the constitutional right of birthright citizenship.
Oh, and there’s more, much more. He wants to use the US military against Mexican cartels. He thinks the NRA should help arm every Taiwanese family with AK-47s. He says that he will stop measuring carbon dioxide emissions as president. He believes America should cut the federal bureaucracy by 75%, including the elimination of the FBI.
And yet, despite a head-shaking agenda, mind-boggling ideas (including questioning the government’s explanation of the 9/11 attacks), and a whiplash-inducing reaction from observers who see him as a wholly unvarnished newcomer to the game, Ramaswamy is having a moment, right this very instant. He is now polling third in many polls, and second in one recent survey. (So it’s no surprise that a pro-DeSantis super PAC has reportedly advised the Florida governor “to take a sledgehammer” to him in the debate.)
Ramaswamy has adopted a Pete Buttegieg/Beto O’Rourke media strategy, which means he does interviews anytime, anywhere, with almost anybody. But just being media savvy doesn’t fully explain what’s powering his campaign.
I believe there’s one word to explain the Ramaswamy mini tsunami: confidence. Obviously, anyone who gets into the presidential arena isn’t shy. But most candidates, including and especially Trump, seem to believe only half of what they say, happy to repeat poll-tested mantras in pursuit of support. But watch Ramaswamy. He’s the truest of true believers, the kind who can convince voters by the mere power of his convictions, whether they are, indeed, genuine or not.
During the George W. Bush campaigns (for which I served as chief media strategist), I worked closely with his talented press secretary, Karen Hughes. She was a good example of the power of confidence. On numerous occasions I saw her wear down reporters—sometimes yours truly, and sometimes even Bush himself—not so much because of the content of her concepts but by the tenacity of her convictions and ferocity of her persuasive passion. She would bear down on you with her blue malamute eyes, possessed of such intensity that you would ultimately just yield to her, thinking, Jeez, if she believes this strongly about it, it must be true.
Ramaswamy, however, is a policy confidence man—the type of snake-oil-spouting, bullshit artist that gave rise to the term con man. He can dazzle an audience with his unshakable certainty. He may be often wrong, but he’s never in doubt. This is a man who had no reservations about rapping to an Eminem song at the Iowa State Fair.
Which brings us to the upcoming inaugural debate (which Trump may or may not attend). Don’t underestimate confidence, especially its power during a political showdown. I’ve coached presidential candidates for debates, and in my view, the number one factor in winning over the pundits and viewers, and by extension, the electorate, is instilling in them an unnatural dose of confidence.
Ramaswamy is a seasoned yapper. He can talk his way into and out of almost any argument. He can run circles around almost any opponent. He can lunge and parry like a fencer. He can twist himself in so many rhetorical knots, all while appearing to be so reasonable that he can pivot your own hard-and-fast opinion on a dime.
So don’t be surprised if Ramaswamy steals some hearts, minds, and headlines at the debate. I can imagine viewers shaking their heads and thinking, I’m not even sure what he said, but I sure liked the way he said it.