Second GOP Debate: Running Against China


After watching the second Republican debate, the first thought was, “These people are sure different from Democrats.” At the Democratic debates of four years ago, when Donald Trump was president, the contenders all moaned about how terribly unequal America was. A great country? Hah. Sen. Elizabeth Warren said it was a great country for the oil companies and the insurance companies; and Mayor Bill DeBlasio of New York saying, “There’s plenty of money in this country. It’s just in the wrong hands.”

I wonder if the Democrats will be saying next year, seeing that Biden has been in office for four years. In any case, inequality is not what bothers Republicans. What boiled the political juices of the seven on stage Wednesday night was China.

North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum said that Biden’s electric-car subsidies were bad because most of the batteries come from China. And 85 percent of the rare earths, he said, come from China.

“China is the real enemy,” said Vivek Ramaswamy. Sen. Tim Scott attacked Ramaswamy by saying, “You were just in business with the Chinese Communist Party.” Think about that: Having been in business with them might be an advantage, because it might give the man insight on how they think. But in this crowd, it was like trafficking with the devil.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis called for “economic independence from China.” None of them seemed to have a sense of how deeply our economy (especially Seattle’s!) is connected to China’s, and what it would cost to pull them apart. They seemed to think that if Americans no longer had their electronics made in China the work would come back home — to San Francisco, maybe, or Simi Valley.

And I thought: Really? Wouldn’t Apple Computer just move its iPhone factories to Bangalore? Maybe if the company were given a enough federal subsidy it would bring manufacturing home — but, then again, Republicans are against that sort of thing.

Politicians need a boogeyman, preferably one who can’t vote — Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Tech, Big China, whatever. Or, for that matter, Big Mexico, which was blamed for illegal immigrants and deadly fentanyl seeping through what Ramaswamy called “our Swiss cheese southern border.”

They were all for sealing the border, and agreed that the Biden administration has done a rotten job of it. Chris Christie recalled that Donald Trump promised to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it, but out of 2,000 miles Trump had built only 51 miles. (The internet says 450 miles,  but you get the idea.)

Nikki Haley said that if elected, she would defund sanctuary cities (Seattle!), and pour money into the Border Patrol and ICE. “Instead of catch and release, we should do catch and deport.”

That was a mainstream position. Ramaswamy was the radical. He was for getting rid of birthright citizenship. The rule comes from the 14th amendment to the Constitution, passed in 1868. It says citizenship is owed to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof” — a phrase, Ramaswamy said, that doesn’t apply to illegals. Tim Scott said that was an appealing idea but he wasn’t too sure that the Supreme Court would think so.

On the immigration issue, DeSantis topped them all. He sounded like he wanted to go back to the Mexican policy of Woodrow Wilson, who sent the U.S. Army into Mexico to run after Pancho Villa. “I am going to use the U.S. military to go after the Mexican drug cartels,” DeSantis said. He said this in the first debate, too. “On day one, I will declare a national emergency,” he said Wednesday night.

I guess DeSantis is not going to ask Congress. Ilia Calderón, moderator from Univision, the Spanish-language network, said that Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador labeled American politicians who suggested such a thing as “scoundrels.” DeSantis didn’t care what the Mexican president said.

On foreign policy, the clash came over funding the war in Ukraine, which cost the United States $113 billion from the beginning through 2022, and more billions since. The argument for the spending is that our resources, but not our soldiers, are being used to chew up Russian tanks and troops. “Our vital interest is in degrading the Russian military,” Tim Scott said. Pence was all for it, as were Christie, Haley, and Burgum. DeSantis and Ramaswamy were against it, as is Donald Trump. “It’s in our interest to end the war,” DeSantis said.

Scott also said that 90 percent of the money sent to Ukraine is a loan. When challenged, he said the European governments were going to pay it back. News to me… Not sure I believe it.

It’s a Republican thing to attack federal spending. Christie, Haley, and DeSantis went after Trump for piling up $7.8 trillion in national debt. None of them mentioned a tax increase and they had little to offer in the way of spending cuts, except for Ramaswamy, who pledged to dismiss three-quarters of federal employees. It wasn’t too clear which three-quarters. And I thought: Not going to happen. The federal government isn’t Twitter.

Haley was for tax cuts. She wanted to end the federal gas tax, and “collapse” the income-tax brackets, which are now 10, 12, 22, 24, 32, 35 and 37 percent. And what about the debt?

Tim Scott wanted to “actually cut taxes and give Americans more of their money back” — and what about the debt? What about the war in Europe you (and Haley) want to pay for, and all the other spending that you haven’t named? (He patted himself on the back for saving Head Start.) To sound like a budget hawk, Scott went after Haley for having spent $50,000 in curtains in the United Nations ambassador’s penthouse apartment in New York.

“They were there when I moved in,” she said. (The State Department — Obama’s State Department — had ordered them.) “Did you give them back?” Scott said. The curtains weren’t hers to give back. They were the government’s curtains. And anyway, the taxing-and-spending problem is bigger than a set of curtains.

Several times the debate degenerated into a shouting fest, with Scott and Haley bashing on each other, DeSantis huffing and puffing, Ramaswamy searching for the bomb shelter and Burgum trying to holler himself into significance. Mike Pence mostly kept out of it, though one of the Fox News guys noted that Pence talked more slowly than the others, which seemed to imply that his neurons fire at a more leisurely pace.

Pence was contradictory on states’ rights. He wanted to devolve health-care regulation (“Obamacare”) to the states, but at the same time he wanted a federal law banning surgery and chemical treatment for gender transition in youth. He also wants a federal ban on abortion. When asked about education, he called it “a state and local function” (which, under the Constitution, it is). But he called for a federal death penalty — an expedited death penalty — for mass shooters. The man is a champion of states’ rights except for the things he cares about most.

Finally, the referees. Two were from Fox, one from Univision. They asked surprisingly tough questions, not questions you’d expect from Fox News. Would Pence cancel DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), the Biden policy of allowing immigrants who came in illegally as children to stay? (Pence dodged the question.) Why, DeSantis was asked, are such a low proportion of Florida people covered by health insurance? (Because we don’t give it away, DeSantis said.) Why, Christie was asked, do Black and Latino children in New Jersey do so poorly on math? (It’s better than it was, Christie said.) DeSantis was asked to explain why, in the six states where abortion was on the ballot in 2022, the Republicans lost. (Not because of that, he said.) And so on. The candidates answered the questions they’d prepared for, not the ones they were asked.

All the candidates did this, but Pence was particularly brazen. Asked how he would reach out to Latinos, he changed the subject to tax cuts, and bragged that the Trump tax cut was the greatest in American history. That was grossly false. The Reagan tax cut of 1981 was much bigger, as was the Kennedy tax cut of 1964. Pence also bragged that under Donald Trump, the United States achieved “energy independence” for the first time in 70 years. That was true; in 2019 the Americans produced more energy than they used. But the oil industry did it, not Trump.

Trump wasn’t there. It was too bad; the entertainment value would have been much higher with The Donald there. As it was, at least we got to hear Chris Christie chide him for dodging his rivals, and calling him “Donald Duck.”


Bruce Ramsey
Bruce Ramsey
Bruce Ramsey was a business reporter and columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in the 1980s and 1990s and from 2000 to his retirement in 2013 was an editorial writer and columnist for the Seattle Times. He is the author of The Panic of 1893: The Untold Story of Washington State’s first Depression, and is at work on a history of Seattle in the 1930s. He lives in Seattle with his wife, Anne.


  1. Good sum by Ramsay – not missing the perennial in these debates:

    “The candidates answered the questions they’d prepared for, not the ones they were asked.”

    As it was, all night long…..


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