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August 24, 2023

Sorting Out the GOP Debate

One candidate stood out, another exceeded expectations, and all eight of them made the most of Donald Trump’s absence.

“Our country is in decline,” said Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in his opening salvo of last night’s Republican Party presidential debate. But, he said, “This decline is not inevitable; it’s a choice.”

In years past, we’d have expected the other candidates to take issue with that kind of pessimistic broadside and rise up on behalf of the country. But not last night. It’s a sign of the times that there was plenty of agreement on this point among the participants, plenty of agreement that Joe Biden’s presidency has already been an unmitigated disaster.

The first thing we noticed about seven of the eight candidates on stage last night was that all of them seemed to be wearing Trump-blue suits and Trump-red ties. Talk about the elephant (not) in the room. Nikki Haley, thankfully, went with a different look. Regardless, it was probably a win-win for the eight candidates, who got to introduce themselves to the American people, and for Donald Trump, who cited his commanding lead in the polls as his reason for sitting this one out with Tucker Carlson.

Those eight qualifying candidates: North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the aforementioned DeSantis, former UN Ambassador and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, former VP Mike Pence, biotech businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott.

We also couldn’t help but notice that Christie, the anti-Trump attack dog and therefore the darling of the Left, got booed during the intros. And deservedly so. The guy seemed to relish turning Ronald Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment — “Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican” — on its head, and not just toward Trump.

As for the other anti-Trumper, Asa Hutchinson, he also got booed. And by the end of the night, he caused us to wonder: What on earth is this guy doing on stage?

As for grittiness, Governor Burgum won it going away. Just prior to the debate, he completely tore his Achilles tendon playing pick-up basketball. And yet there he was, standing on stage for two hours, answering media questions afterward, and quipping that he’d taken his fellow North Dakotans too literally when they sent him to Milwaukee and told him, “Break a leg.”

Ramaswamy, 38, gave an electrifying albeit pre-packaged intro answer, and it set the tone for the rest of his performance. The guy is whip smart and quick on his feet. “Do you want a super PAC puppet,” he asked, “or do you want a patriot who speaks the truth?”

One point of unanimity among the candidates was American energy, about which all of them agreed that Biden’s war on fossil fuels is killing the American economy. “Drill, frack, burn coal, embrace nuclear,” said Ramaswamy in rapid-fire succession.

If Haley’s chances of being Trump’s VP pick didn’t go out the window with her first answer, in which she blamed the former president for having added $8 trillion to the national debt, they certainly did so when she said, toward the end of the debate, “Trump is the most disliked politician in America,” while warning that the Republicans can’t win the presidency with him on the ticket. No one else staked out that territory last night — not even Christie.

Pence was strong with his opening statement, but his mean-spirited swipe at Ramaswamy — “Now is not the time for on-the-job training; we don’t need to bring in a rookie” — was strangely un-Pence-like. If Pence supporters were looking for a breakout performance, he simply didn’t deliver.

It’s interesting, too, because in terms of speaking time, Pence led all candidates with 12:37. For comparison, Ron DeSantis came in fifth at 10:22. Clearly, what a candidate says is more important than how long he takes to say it.

When the elitists at Fox News turned to the topic of climate change, DeSantis had one of his best moments — and certainly his most commanding one. Co-moderator Bret Baier asked a pre-recorded question from a concerned young person and then tried to get the candidates on record with a show of hands about whether they believe climate change is man-caused. “We’re not children here,” DeSantis shot back immediately — and that was the end of Baier’s show-of-hands stunt.

One of the most jarring moments of the night came when Ramaswamy took a shot at the rest of the candidates on climate change: “I’m the only person on the stage who isn’t bought and paid for,” he said, “so I can say this: The climate change agenda is a hoax, and we need to declare our independence from it.”

In response, Christie bellowed back with a pre-programmed retort: “I’ve had enough of a guy who sounds like Chat GPT.” Christie also took exception to the way Ramaswamy introduced himself as a “skinny guy with a funny last name” because the last guy to use that line was Barack Obama.

When co-moderator Martha McCallum asked about abortion and the electoral toll that the issue has been taking with suburban women, Haley came back with a thoughtful answer and staked out some reasonable policy positions. “I am unapologetically pro-life,” she said, but “we’ve got to stop demonizing this issue.”

DeSantis weighed in, defending his state’s six-week ban on abortion, saying, “I believe in a culture of life,” and, referring to the Democrats’ de facto position of abortion on demand up until the moment of birth, vowing, “We will hold them accountable for their extremism.” This comment — calling out the Democrats’ on-demand abortion extremism — seems to us the way forward, the way to go on offense rather than continuing to play defense.

Pence proposed a 15-week ban, which he said is still “after a baby is able to feel pain.”

Bergum came out against a federal ban on abortion, refreshingly invoking the 10th Amendment and referring the matter to the states, while Scott called out “states like California, New York, and Illinois” that have abortion on demand up until the moment of birth.

Haley then rightly challenged the media to ask Democrats what their abortion threshold is: 38 weeks? 39 weeks? 40 weeks? This, too, we think, is a great way to go on offense. Of course, the media won’t go along, but that doesn’t mean our candidates can’t keep pounding on them for their bias.

Baier: “We are going to take a moment to talk about the elephant *not” in the room.“

It was a telling moment when he then said "You all signed a pledge” and asked the candidates whether they’d still support Trump as their party’s nominee if he was convicted in a court of law. Ramaswamy’s hand shot up immediately. Then Haley and Scott followed, and then Bergum. Then, after looking to his left and his right and then his left again, DeSantis sort of meekly raised his hand. And then Pence, who didn’t need to look. And then, surprisingly, Christie, who later tried to mealy-mouth it back, saying he was wagging his finger rather than raising his hand.

“The conduct is beneath the office of president of the United States,” said Christie, to boos from the audience. To which he responded, “Booing is allowed, but it doesn’t change the truth.”

Hutchinson was the only one of the eight who didn’t raise his hand.

When Scott was asked whether Pence did the right thing on January 6, he didn’t hesitate: “Yes.” Then he pivoted immediately to the Democrats’ weaponization of government, and he said the first thing he’d do is fire Merrick Garland, and the second thing he’d do is fire Christopher Wray.

DeSantis also hit weaponization and eventually got back to the question of Pence and January 6. “Mike did his duty. I’ve got no beef with him.”

In defense of himself, Pence was ready: “I had no right to overturn the election,” he said, “and Kamala Harris will have no right to overturn the election when we beat them in 2024.”

As for Hutchinson, he couldn’t resist: “Donald Trump was morally disqualified from being president again because of what happened on January 6.” Then he did the work of leftist legal scholars and invoked the old 14th Amendment argument meant to keep former Confederate leaders from serving in Congress.

When Baier asked whether the candidates would support an increase of funding to Ukraine, Ramaswamy stood alone in refusing. Then he compared securing our southern border to helping Ukraine secure its border, and giving money to Ukraine instead of Maui or the south side of Chicago.

Pence, though, strongly defended our support of Ukraine against Vladimir Putin: “We can do both. … We achieve peace through strength.”

To which Ramaswamy shot back, “Ukraine is not a priority for the United States of America.” Then he invoked Vietnam and Iraq as wars that were mistakes.

Haley then joined in, hitting Ramaswamy hard on his isolationism: “He wants to hand Ukraine to Russia, he wants to let China eat Taiwan, he wants to stop funding Israel. You don’t do that to friends.” This escalated into a shouting match, with Haley calling Ukraine our “first line of defense” and telling Ramaswamy that he’s “choosing a murderer” in Putin. “You have no foreign policy experience,” she yelled, “and it shows.”

DeSantis jumped back in, rightly reminding his colleagues that the first duty of an American president is to protect our border. He then said he’d secure the southern border and declare war on the cartels, and that he’d use the American military to do it.

“If we just spend $10 billion, we could finish the wall,” said Scott.

MacCallum asked DeSantis about using lethal force against the cartels, and he responded immediately. “Would I use force? Would I treat them as foreign terrorist organizations? You bet I would.”

Pence, meanwhile, spoke of his record in defending the southern border and how the economic pressure the Trump administration applied was successful in getting Mexico to do its job.

The talk then shifted to education. “The nation’s report card,” said Baier, “was the weakest ever for American schoolchildren, exposing chronic absenteeism, deep declines for reading and math.”

Said DeSantis, who has pledged to eliminate the Department of Education, “We need education in this country, not indoctrination.” And he talked about American civics, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. “As president,” he said, “I’m going to lead an effort to increase civic understanding and knowledge of our Constitution. We cannot be graduating students that don’t have any foundation in what it means to be an American.”

But it was Ramaswamy who weighed in with one of the best responses of the night, calling a two-parent household “the ultimate privilege,” calling education “the civil rights issue of our time,” and calling the nuclear family “the greatest form of governance known to mankind.”

Haley added, “Let’s put vocational education back into our schools,” and suggested that we teach our young people “to build things again.”

Baier then teed up the candidates’ closing comments with the following: “Twenty years ago, 70% of American adults said they were extremely proud to be an American. That number has now plummeted to just 39%. In his pitch to get to the Oval Office, President Reagan called America the shining city on a hill, a beacon of hope and optimism.”

Perhaps Pence said it best: “Joe Biden was weakened American at home and abroad … but I know we can bring it back. We proved during the Trump Pence years that you can turn this country around faster than you can imagine. … God is not done with America yet. … The best days for the greatest nation on earth are yet to come.”

As for the election choice, former RNC Chair Reince Priebus afterwards noted, “Every one of these candidates is better than Joe Biden.” Or, we might add, whoever replaces him on the Democrat ticket.

Ultimately, that’s what the 2024 election is all about, and every Republican candidate would do well to focus on that instead of hitting each other.

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