Strategists may hope the Republican Party speaks with one voice in 2024, but multiple voices shouted over one another and genuine dislikes emerged as seven GOP presidential hopefuls held their second debate on party-aligned Fox News at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif.
Reagan authored the GOP’s famous 11th Commandment: “Thou Shalt Not Speak Ill of any Fellow Republican.” It was disobeyed dozens of times last night. Ex-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said of frontrunner Donald Trump, who deliberately skipped the debate: “He put $7 trillion on the national debt and he should answer for that.”
“Donald Duck,” as Christie called Trump, would rather “hide behind his golf clubs” than defend his days in office. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who hoped to but has failed to attract Trump’s followers, finally opened up on the ex-President. Trump is “completely missing in action,” said DeSantis, and his economic policies set the stage for today’s inflation.
After a strong Milwaukee debate appearance, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley came out like Margaret Thatcher when Britain’s “Iron Lady” PM faced question period in the House of Commons. She went after entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, a kind of Trump substitute who drew attention in the first debate.
Ramaswamy embraced the Chinese-owned social media platform TikTok, which he joined after calling it “digital fentanyl” in earlier appearances. TikTok is banned from government-issued devices, but Ramaswamy said it is a device for Republicans to challenge Democrats’ hold on young voters.
“Every time I hear you I feel a little dumber for what you say,” Haley shot back. She later had Vivek twisting in knots trying to explain his past investments in China, a country he demonizes today. Ex-Vice President Mike Pence chimed in, saying he was glad Vivek pulled out of his business deal in China. “That must have been about the same time you decided to start voting in presidential elections.”
Vivek made news in the first debate by describing everybody else on the stage as corrupt. Last night, he was evoking Reagan’s 11th Amendment and saying Republican hopefuls should not start engaging in “personal insults.” Not likely, since the newcomer is openly disliked.
Donald Trump probably enjoyed last night’s debate. He is far ahead in the polls and no clear rival emerged from the shout-fest. Christie even addressed him, saying of (and to) Trump: “He needs to be voted off the island and he needs to be taken out of the process.” Trump was speaking to supporters and striking auto workers at a non-union business in Macomb County, Michigan, one of the nation’s key swing areas.
With relentless repetition of the party line, Fox News has produced a drilled, angry “dittohead” audience. The debate saw a few deviations from the Fox comfort zone. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, lone African-American Republican in the Senate, questioned DeSantis about changes to black history in Florida’s school curriculum, which critics say has airbrushed the experience of slavery and Jim Crow racism in America. “That’s a hoax that was perpetrated by [Vice President] Kamala Harris,” DeSantis shot back, saying African-American scholars crafted his much-criticized lesson plans.
DeSantis was better onstage than in Milwaukee. The Florida governor tried to stitch in rehearsed stories of voter encounters on the campaign trail, but awkwardly. DeSantis talks about ordinary people with about as much ease as a duck trying to have sex with a football.
Opposition to environmental policies of the Biden-Harris Administration has become Fox and Republican doctrine. Even DeSantis has had to discount climate change as a factor in intensifying hurricanes that hit Florida. Pence said he would “unleash” the energy industry and open federal lands to drilling. “Joe Biden’s Green New Deal agenda is good for Beijing and bad for Detroit,” said the ex-veep. “We ought to repeal the Green New Deal.” DeSantis, a Horowitz on the sound-bite keyboard, promised an energy policy of “Midland over Moscow.”
The Green New Deal has never been enacted and Biden has never announced support for it. Never mind. The aggressive Haley attacked DeSantis as a closet green. She upbraided DeSantis for being “against fracking and against drilling,” stands he has taken as a state whose beaches draw tourists from around the world.
Policy did come into play. DeSantis took a dovish stand on Ukraine, saying: “It’s in our best interests to end this war.” Ramaswamy demonized Ukraine’s President Vladimir Zelensky in words that could have been broadcast on Radio Moscow. Haley shot back that “a win for Russia is a win for China,” alluding to China’s designs on Taiwan. Christie spoke of “the naivete of some people on this stage,” adding: “If we give him [Putin] any of Ukraine, next will be Poland.”
There were outright falsehoods, such as Scott charging that as U.N. Ambassador, Haley “literally spent $50,000 on curtains.” His researchers got it wrong. It was $52,000, spent by the State Department during the Obama Administration.
The candidates were together on certain themes. All of them demonized teachers’ unions, depicting Biden as a union stooge and one married to a teacher for 32 years. (Dr. Jill Biden teaches community college students.) But Pence, while endorsing vouchers and charter schools, allowed that he has “been sleeping with a teacher for 38 years.” (He calls her “Mother.”)
Fox News faithful could take comfort in denunciations of “radical gender ideology” and promises to ban gender transition surgery for teenagers. Likewise, everybody agreed that crime should be punished. DeSantis repeated his desire to send U.S. troops into Mexico after drug traffickers. Pence was for an expedited death penalty for mass killers.
Nobody mentioned gun safety legislation.