Plus, a new YouTube video on Donald Trump.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 13 minutes.

Today, we break down the fourth and final Republican debate. Plus, a new video on Trump and a preview of tomorrow's subscribers-only edition.

10 thoughts about Israel.

Tomorrow, I'll be sending our Tangle members a Friday edition with 10 assorted thoughts about what we are witnessing in Israel. I have a lot on my mind that I'd like to get down on paper, so I'm going to use tomorrow's members-only edition to do that.

Quick hits.

  1. U.S. gas prices have fallen to an 11-month low, hitting an average of $3.22 per gallon as oil prices dropped below $70 per barrel. (The latest)
  2. Three people were killed and at least one person was injured in a shooting on the University of Nevada, Las Vegas campus yesterday. The suspect was killed in a shootout with police. (The shooting) Separately, Texas police arrested a suspect following a daylong series of attacks in San Antonio and Austin that killed six people. (The shooting)
  3. Three university presidents were grilled by members of Congress on Wednesday for their handling of pro-Palestine protests on the Penn, Harvard, and MIT campuses. (The testimony)
  4. The United States charged four Russian soldiers with war crimes for torturing a U.S. citizen in Ukraine, the first such charges brought in the war. (The charges)
  5. The Senate failed to pass a $110 billion defense spending bill, which included $61 billion for Ukraine, as Republicans push for stricter immigration measures to be tied to Ukrainian aid. (The vote)

Today's topic.

The final Republican debate. On Wednesday night, four candidates gathered in Alabama for the fourth and final Republican debate: former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. For the fourth consecutive time, former President Donald Trump, who is leading the GOP primary by a wide margin, didn't participate.

The debate was hosted by NewsNation and moderated by NewsNation's Elizabeth Vargas, former Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, and The Washington Free Beacon's Eliana Johnson. For the first time, moderators brought up Trump in the opening minutes of the debate and pressed the four candidates on their views of him. Once again, however, most of the candidates focused their ire on each other, with the exception of Christie, who repeatedly attacked Trump as unfit and suggested he could be in prison by the time the general election comes around.

Haley, who has been gaining momentum in the race, was the target of most of the night’s attacks. The moderators' questions focused on Trump, the war in Israel, the fentanyl crisis, gender transition surgery and puberty blockers, the threat of China, cryptocurrency, and immigration policy.

As we did with the first, second, and third debates, today we are going to get out of our normal format and highlight each candidate — from least to most popular in the national polling average — and briefly recap their highs and lows from the night. Then we'll share some views from the left and right, and then my take.

Chris Christie.
2.7% in the polls

Christie, the 61-year-old former governor of New Jersey, had an impactful night given his limited speaking time. He gave direct answers to the questions posed by the moderators, chided Vivek Ramaswamy and Ron DeSantis for being evasive, and noticeably changed the tone of the event. He called out Ramaswamy directly for personal attacks on Haley, and criticized every candidate for being afraid to offend Donald Trump. Christie drew boos and cheers at multiple points for saying the former president was unfit for office and had most likely committed felonies. He touted his record as New Jersey District Attorney; praised the records of former Attorney General John Ashcroft and President Ronald Reagan; and sold himself as someone who would be objective on the law and tough on Iran, Russia, and China.

The notables:

  • Christie received his first question of the night after 17 minutes of debate, which was about why voters would choose him to beat Biden when he has failed to beat Trump. He answered by saying he’s the only candidate who would tell the truth and criticized the other candidates for pretending the race was between the four of them, avoiding the subject of Donald Trump because of aspirations to serve in his administration or run for office again in 2028.
  • Christie defended Nikki Haley in response to a Vivek Ramaswamy attack, which he characterized as personal, and then attacked Ramaswamy, saying he has no standing to criticize Haley’s experience and that his foreign policy would just appease Putin. At one point, Christie called Ramaswamy an “obnoxious blowhard.” 
  • Christie drew boos from the audience for saying he wouldn’t ban sex change operations for minors because he doesn’t want the government involved in those decisions. He also said Megyn Kelly was wrong to say he enacted a policy in New Jersey that schools should not disclose a child’s pronoun decisions to their parents, correctly saying it was enacted after he left office in 2018 — though his counterclaim requires some context.
  • On Donald Trump, Christie was consistently highly critical. He claimed that Trump will try to be a dictator if elected to a second term, would weaponize the DOJ against anyone who has disagreed with him, and is “angry and bitter.”
  • Christie also criticized Trump’s record on China as well as Ramaswamy’s idea of arming Taiwan, despite that country’s gun ban. 

Vivek Ramaswamy.
4.9% in the polls

Ramaswamy, the 38-year-old entrepreneur, again played the role of provocateur, directing his ire at Nikki Haley while also sparring with Chris Christie and, to a lesser extent, Ron DeSantis. At different points, he called Haley a fascist, a corrupt politician, and inauthentic in her beliefs, while also telling Christie to “do everybody a favor, just walk yourself off that stage… and get the hell out of this race.” On domestic and foreign policy issues, Ramaswamy staked out positions that were largely at odds with others’ on the stage but aligned with the sentiments of far right voters. He gave impassioned responses to questions about issues like border security, the opioid epidemic, and the U.S. healthcare system, but also veered into conspiracy theories when discussing his concerns about the “deep state.”

The notables:

  • Ramaswamy opened the night by attacking Haley and claiming that she sold out to corporate interests after her last role at the United Nations. This line of attack continued throughout the debate, with Ramaswamy at one point holding up a handwritten sign that said “Nikki = Corrupt.” 
  • Asked about his comments on the campaign trail that seemed to imply Haley converted to Christianity to appeal to conservative voters, Ramaswamy said, “I don't question her faith, I question her authenticity,” and suggested that she traffics in the same brand of identity politics as the left. 
  • He took hardline stances on immigration policy and gender, saying the U.S. should immediately deport anyone who is in the country illegally and calling for the use of military force to secure the Southern border. He also said “transgenderism is a mental health disorder.”
  • Ramaswamy carved out a unique position on the war in Israel, criticizing Republicans who say that Hamas’s attack was effectively an attack on America, too. He said Israel should be left to its own devices to fight Hamas and that the U.S. should turn its attention to addressing its own domestic problems. 
  • Asked to explain his comments about arming Taiwanese citizens as an act of deterrence against China, Ramaswamy explained that his proposal was part of a broader approach of signaling strength. He called for economic independence from China and a strengthening of relations with India.
  • In the second half of the debate, Ramaswamy ran down a list of notable events that he said were proof of the “deep state” influence on U.S. politics, and engaged in some conspiratorial thinking. He suggested the January 6 riot was an “inside job,” the U.S. government lied about Saudi Arabia’s involvement in 9/11, the 2020 election was stolen from Trump by “Big Tech,” and the “great replacement theory” is an explicit part of the left’s agenda. 
  • In his closing remarks, Ramaswamy repeated his previous comments that “the climate change agenda is a hoax.” He said climate change policy is “shackling the country like a set of handcuffs” and warned that government plans to address climate change could be more restrictive than Covid policies.

Nikki Haley.
10.6% in the polls

Haley, the 51-year-old former ambassador to the United Nations, was the main target of attacks from the other candidates, a sign of her steadily increasing momentum in the race. Responding to accusations that she is beholden to her wealthy donors and out of touch with the GOP base, Haley asserted that any other candidate would accept the donations she’s received and defended her conservative credentials. Once again, she took strong stances on foreign policy issues like the war in Ukraine, for which she argued that unwavering U.S. support is critical for preventing a war with China. While she mainly avoided criticizing Trump by name, Haley did draw a contrast between herself and the former president in her closing remarks, saying that he represents “chaos” while she embodies a “no-drama” approach to governance.

The notables:

  • Haley was bombarded with attacks from both Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy throughout the debate, with the former mainly challenging her policy positions and record as governor of South Carolina and the latter accusing her of being a corrupt politician. Haley leaned into these back-and-forths for much of the night, but toward the end of the debate chose to refuse to respond to a Ramaswamy criticism, saying it wasn’t worth her time.
  • In response to criticism about her recent comments on curtailing online anonymity, Haley said social media would be more civil if people had to use their names when posting but stressed that the government can’t require that to happen. She also took aim at pro-Hamas sentiment on social media, arguing that TikTok — which should be “banned” — is pushing dangerous propaganda about the war in Israel to young people.
  • Haley said no when asked if the U.S. should preemptively bomb Iran, but suggested pursuing a more aggressive strategy than the one currently employed by President Biden. She called for strikes against Iranian infrastructure in response to attacks on U.S. soldiers.
  • On immigration, Haley called Biden’s immigration policy a “disaster,” but left the door open to a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized migrants who had been in the U.S. for many years and were working and paying taxes. She also threw her support behind the ethos of Trump’s “Muslim ban,” saying that the U.S. shouldn’t single anyone out by religion but should halt immigration from countries with terrorist activity like Iran, Yemen, and Lebanon.
  • In her closing remarks, Haley framed the state of the country as chaotic and said both Trump and Biden would be a continuation of that chaos if they are their respective party’s nominees. She positioned herself as a coolheaded alternative who would fight for conservative values while ushering in greater economic prosperity.

Ron DeSantis.
12.7% in the polls

DeSantis, the 45-year-old governor of Florida, drew some of the loudest cheers of the night while touting his tough stances on the border and foreign policy. In a debate that heavily featured both of those issues and contained a significant portion on gender, DeSantis was more consistent than usual in tying his responses to his experience serving in the military and as governor of Florida. He took very hard stances on gender, China, and immigration, and came after Nikki Haley on all three topics. Throughout the night, the Florida governor criticized Haley exclusively, with the exception of a brief shouting match with Chris Christie over whether Donald Trump is fit for office. DeSantis closed by saying that he would fight for Americans while president and win, like he has done in Florida.

The notables:

  • In response to his first question of the night over how he could win while Trump is dominating and Haley is surging, DeSantis eschewed polls and touted his record in fights in Florida against teachers unions, Fauci, and a liberal district attorney. He then attacked Haley for not doing enough to oppose “gender mutilation” of minors.
  • DeSantis also touted pulling $2 billion of Florida assets from BlackRock in response to their ESG initiatives, saying that Haley would not confront liberal economics and Wall Street interests because of her recently committed large donors.
  • He also went after Haley for supporting a proposal that people use their real names on social media accounts, characterizing her position as wanting the government to be able to link everyone’s identities to their online political positions.
  • On Israel, DeSantis pledged full support, saying they are fighting against Hamas’s goal of a Jewish genocide. He said the U.S. has to get out of Israel’s way, and attacked President Biden for “kneecapping” Israel’s response and for not protecting American troops on bases in Syria from Iran-backed attacks.
  • When the moderators asked if he would really use the military to shoot anyone crossing the border with a backpack that might have fentanyl in it, DeSantis compared the situation to the war in Iraq and described his military experience, remembering how U.S. soldiers would identify enemy combatants among civilians. He refrained from describing his stance as supporting extra-judicial killing, instead saying that we should declare war on the cartels and use military tactics like intelligence gathering to determine who is a real threat.
  • On immigration, DeSantis was critical of Biden and progressive Democrats. He said he would finish building the wall and get Mexico to pay for it through taxes on remittances, and said immigrants from Islamic countries and refugees from Gaza would import anti-American culture.
  • DeSantis said that we need a person younger than Trump to serve but would not outright say that he is unfit when pressed by both the moderators and Chris Christie.
  • In his closing statement, DeSantis said that we need a president willing to fight against the progressive agenda and prevent the next generation from being the first one in history to be less free and prosperous than the one before it.

What the right is saying.

  • The right is subdued in their reaction to the debate and predicts it will have little impact on the Republican primary.
  • Some questioned Haley’s conservative credentials while others say Trump was once again the winner, as no candidate managed to land a meaningful blow even in his absence. 

In National Review, Noah Rothman wrote “a desperate debate ends in a draw.”

“Voters were presented with a Rorschach test. Each candidate hit their notes and met expectations, so voters who watched the debate probably saw exactly what they wanted to see — whatever that meant to them. Voters who like Ron DeSantis saw him at his best. For the first time in this cycle, DeSantis ran like he was behind in the polls — a prudent calculation, because he very much is,” Rothman wrote. “If you like Nikki Haley, you were probably satisfied with her performance. She drew an inordinate amount of fire from her fellow candidates on the debate stage, which only confirmed her status as the new front-runner in the race for second place.”

“For the handful of Republican-primary voters who back Chris Christie, they saw the unvarnished wrecking ball they have come to depend upon to be the skunk at the garden party,” Rothman added. “Vivek Ramaswamy fans were probably delighted by his willingness to tap-dance across live wires. He leaned into the noxious-boor persona he has cultivated in this race, accusing everyone in his general vicinity of corruption.”

In Townhall, Matt Vespa said the debate could be summed up in three words: “everyone hates Nikki.”

The debate “was another entertaining spectacle despite all four candidates having no chance of beating Donald Trump in the GOP primaries. It is what it is, folks—Donald Trump will be the 2024 Republican nominee whether we like it or not. Still, that doesn’t mean these four didn’t mail it in regarding this melee. To the contrary, it got downright nasty,” Vespa wrote. “The most obvious reason for everyone hurling mud at Ms. Haley is simple: she’s been surging in the polls. Okay, it’s not a tsunami, but it has garnered more than a few stories in the press. Second, her past political positions pretty much make her a carbon copy of Hillary Clinton.”

“Ramaswamy did go overboard at some points, but this is irrelevant to the larger picture: none of the candidates on the stage will be the 2024 Republican nominee or the next president of the United States. Ron DeSantis did what he needed to do: attack Haley when necessary, be calm and collected, and defend himself against any counterattacks, which he did. Christie portrayed himself as the adult in the room and someone who would answer the questions directly,” Vespa said. “No one gained anything tonight. It was fight club on stage, and Donald Trump was the only person left sitting atop the mountain. Still, Haley got grilled...a lot.”

What the left is saying.

  • The left disparages the Republican candidates for their unwillingness to attack Trump directly through all four debates.
  • Some say Trump has been vindicated for choosing not to participate while others note the increased attention paid to Nikki Haley, but say she is just fighting for second place. 

In The New York Times, Frank Bruni criticized the “moral surrender and magical thinking at another pointless G.O.P. debate.”

“If the candidates trying to wrest their party’s presidential nomination from Donald Trump began the Republican debates over three months ago in a spirit of hope, they have plunged since then into a panicked state. A desperate one. That’s the ugly, nasty place where they spent the fourth and possibly last of those debates on Wednesday night,” Bruni said. “Not one of the four people onstage in Tuscaloosa, Ala., has made meaningful progress in peeling Republican voters away from Trump and closing the enormous gap between his front-runner status and their also-ran positions.

“And their answer to that? Except for Christie, they devoted more time and energy to sniping at one another than to taking sustained and forceful aim at the actual agent of their political frustration, the real source of their electoral woe, the great orange obstacle between them and the White House. And that’s why they’re unlikely to get there. These aspirants to the presidency have now spent four debates quarreling with one another, and they have now spent four debates pussyfooting around the absent leader of the pack and letting him off easy..”

In The Atlantic, Russell Berman called it “the Nikki Haley debate.”

“Anyone watching the fourth Republican primary debate tonight would be forgiven for thinking that Nikki Haley was the favorite to win the GOP presidential nomination next year. Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy sure were acting like it,” Berman said. “The broadsides continued throughout the two-hour debate in Tuscaloosa, Alabama: DeSantis and Ramaswamy used every opportunity to go after Haley, even when they were prodded to criticize the Republican who is actually dominating the primary race, Donald Trump.”

“The reluctance of Trump’s rivals (aside from Christie) to attack the former president has frustrated Republicans who are rooting against his renomination. But on some level it makes sense. Haley, DeSantis, and Ramaswamy aren’t actually running against Trump — at least not yet. The best way to think of these Trump-less debates is as a primary within a primary. The four Republicans on stage tonight were battling merely for the right to face off against Trump,” Berman wrote. “The all-important question is whether one of these four can break away from the others in time to wage a fair fight against Trump. The window for doing so is closing fast, but it is not shut completely.”

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. Write in by replying to this email, or leave a comment.

By the time the fourth debate comes around, it's hard to find anything novel to say about these spectacles, but this debate was different from the others in a couple of ways. And I have some thoughts about what we witnessed last night.

First, the moderators did a great job. They asked the most probing questions of any debate so far, actually rooting them in the policies or history of the candidates on stage. Even though they let the candidates fight it out a little too long at times, I thought this was the most informative of all four debates (I said that about the third debate, too, but this one was better).

As for the candidates, I think Vivek Ramaswamy is probably the most annoying politician I've ever watched. Not because I’m philosophically opposed to him — I disagree with him on some things, but I actually strongly agree with him on others. Yet even on the issues where I agree with him, he makes his case in such an obnoxious way I find myself wanting to disagree with him. One minute he is speaking truthfully about our "sick care" health care system, the need for a national identity, and the corporate overlords in politics (amen!). The next minute he's claiming January 6 was an "inside job" and the 2020 election was stolen. I wish he could find a way to deliver his messages without engaging our ugliest base desires for suspicion and insults. He is definitively not a unifying candidate, despite what he says, and his candidacy has gone from promising and intriguing to incredibly disappointing.

You can also expect to hear a lot about Ramaswamy “trafficking in conspiracy theories” from the media. And to some degree, it’s true. I hate using the phrase “conspiracy theory,” but it is genuinely delusional to believe January 6 was an “inside job” or the left’s agenda is “explicitly” the Great Replacement Theory. I’ve written about the danger and absurdity of the Great Replacement Theory here and January 6 conspiracies here. Now, Ramaswamy is right about Saudi Arabia’s role in 9/11 being downplayed or ignored, and if you believe suppression of the Hunter Biden story impacted the election, then maybe you think “Big Tech stole it,” as he said. But his comments on January 6 and The Great Replacement were simply irresponsible lies. 

Elsewhere on the stage, Ron DeSantis is living proof that politics is about far more than just delivering on policy. If it were only policy, the Republican base would love him, and he'd be mopping the floor with Donald Trump right now. But as we wrote in response to yesterday’s reader question, a lot of politics is personality — it's appearance, and delivery, and the feeling of leadership. DeSantis is wooden, scripted, and uncomfortable to watch. I don't think I've ever seen a larger disparity between an effective policymaker (i.e. he gets done what he intends to) and a weak political persona.

I also found myself enjoying Chris Christie last night more than ever before. I wrote early on in this cycle that he should drop out of the race because there is no appetite in the Republican party for what he's delivering, and because he’s less running a campaign than waging a personal vendetta against Trump. But last night he showed why his presence is additive: He was right that the four candidates aren't running against Biden, they are running against Trump, and that they all refuse to address his shortcomings honestly. 

He's also right that if they are too cowardly to take positions on Trump, they shouldn't be trusted to sit across from Xi or Putin. Christie spoke plainly and answered questions directly, and he did a great job last night calling out his fellow Republicans when they refused to do so. It was refreshing and authentic. And it made me wonder what would have happened if the historically flip-flopping establishment Republican had leaned into this side of himself earlier.

Last week, we wrote about Haley’s momentum in the race. Last night, the group finally found some soft spots on Haley, and I thought they delivered their attacks with precision. That she has received support from wealthy Democratic donors and jumped from politics to a lucrative board seat on Boeing is one of her biggest weaknesses in this race. This is an era of populism in the Republican Party, and Haley was probably the least populist candidate on stage. I thought she did a decent job defending herself (she left Boeing after they requested government assistance, she was proud to work for a company that builds great airplanes and creates tons of jobs, etc.) but if you want to understand why she'll never beat Trump, that's a good place to start.

And while we're on Trump, it really is incredible that he has refused to show up for a single debate and it has done nothing to damage him politically. I wish Republican voters had more of a spine here — I wish there was even some semblance of a pressure campaign to get him on stage to defend his record. But there hasn’t been, and there still isn’t. People just... don’t care. He is going to win and his absence doesn’t matter, despite his running from a fight being antithetical to everything he says about being proud of his record, willing to stand up for anyone, etc.

So, now what? Take a look at the polls. The Iowa caucuses are 39 days away. As I've said since August, Trump is running away with the nomination, and barring a major development in his legal cases, an absolute blockbuster story that totally undermines his candidacy, or some serious health issue (which are all possible!), he is going to be the Republican nominee in 2024.

Speaking of Trump...

On our YouTube channel, you’ll find a brand new video where we break down what a potential second Trump term might look like. You can watch it below:


  • 22 minutes, 36 seconds. Vivek Ramaswamy’s speaking time during the debate, the most of any candidate.
  • 16 minutes, 52 seconds. Chris Christie’s speaking time during the debate, the least of any candidate.
  • 39. The number of days until the Iowa Caucuses. 
  • 47. The number of days until the New Hampshire primary.
  • 145. The number of days Vivek Ramaswamy has spent campaigning, according to analysis from The New York Times. 
  • 55. The number of days Donald Trump has spent campaigning. 
  • 59. The number of days Ramaswamy has spent campaigning in Iowa, the most of any GOP candidate. 
  • 4.8%. Ramaswamy’s polling average in Iowa, as of December 6, 2023.
  • 33. The number of days Ron DeSantis has spent campaigning in Iowa, the second-most of any GOP candidate. 
  • 19.7%. DeSantis’s polling average in Iowa, as of December 6, 2023.

The extras.

  • One year ago today we wrote about the Supreme Court case of the Colorado wedding website designer.
  • The most clicked link in yesterday's newsletter was the man whose headache turned out to be caused by a pair of chopsticks.
  • Money well spent: 782 Tangle readers responded to our poll asking about U.S. aid to Ukraine, with 50% saying that the U.S. should give aid unconditionally. 37% said aid should be conditional, and of that group 32% said it should be conditional on border funding while 4% said it should be conditional on aid to Israel. 7% said the U.S. should not give further aid to Ukraine. "Russia's military has been halved in this war. US money well spent," one respondent said.
  • Nothing to do with politics: The first night of Hanukkah is tonight. Here's what you need to know.
  • Take the poll. Who do you think won the fourth Republican debate? Let us know!

Have a nice day.

Professor Renaud Morieux, a history faculty member from Cambridge University's Pembroke College, recently became the first person to read over 100 letters sent from or to French sailors that the British Navy intercepted during the Seven Years’ War. The letters were sent to or from fiancées, wives, siblings, and parents over 250 years ago, but were never received and never read. Until now. "I could spend the night writing to you … I am your forever faithful wife. Good night, my dear friend. It is midnight. I think it is time for me to rest," wrote Marie Dubosc to her husband, a Lieutenant in the French Navy, in 1758. Morieux, who stumbled upon the letters by accident, painstakingly transcribed them for the French journal Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales.  "These letters are about universal human experiences, they're not unique to France or the 18th century,” Morieux said. Science Direct has the story.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.