ACCORDING TO LIZ - It was pretty wild, a room of hyperactive juveniles without their Ritalin. It was also creepily Christian, morally bankrupt, remarkably conflicted, and scarily out-of-touch with 2023.
In addition to the lockstep denial of human responsibility for climate change and therefore mankind’s obligation to repair the damage, there were a lot of other deranged claims made on that stage.
Most candidates wanted to cut government but expand the military (the most expensive factor of the budget) while slashing social programs and exerting more control over individuals’ behavior. Sadly most continued to pipe Trump’s tunes.
And like Trump, no-one thought the rules were for them…
First female governor of South Carolina and ex-Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley was probably the sanest person in this on the stage but that isn’t saying much. And she hasn’t a hope in hell against Trump. Plus, if the Ex does get his come-uppance, her blue-suited competitors will almost certainly conspire to bring their own brand of misogyny to the fore.
While advocating for consensus, Haley certainly didn’t pull any punches on the issues, calling Trump the most disliked politician in America, and Putin the murderer he is. She was head and shoulders above the rest of the gang who couldn’t shoot straight with regards to international understanding and experience.
Although she steered clear of the January 6th morass by deferring any decision on leadership to people, she did note that whoever would be president would need more moral authority to go with the position.
She scored points with me by pointing out that it was Trump who added $8 trillion to the national debt, and acknowledging that climate change is real. Even if she couldn’t bring herself to raise her hand when the candidates were asked if they thought human action caused it. Since none of the boys did either, she clearly didn’t want to be the odd man – er, woman – out.
And more points by channeling the ballsy Margaret Thatcher: “If you want something said, ask a man; if want something done, ask a woman”.
Mike Pence, the ex-Pres’ very ex-Vice, started in by quoting the bible, expounding on right-to-life screeds, and the benefits of a reactionary Supreme Court. He came out in support of the Trump-Pence administration that reduced immigration by 90% and helped build the wall (or at least started to). An environmentally-damaging construction he would continue, as well as partnering with the Mexican military. He also vowed to slash the national debt and push for fiscal responsibility by slashing Medicare and welfare.
Curious the slashing... considering he called for more funding of law enforcement, and extending the Trump tax cuts.
After patting himself on the back for standing up to Trump when asked to put his President over the Constitution, Pence piously voiced that pardons should be based on contrition... hmm.
Quixotically, Pence also expressed the need for everyone in government to pass both a physical and mental test to prove their qualifications to hold office – double hmm.
He would also shut down the Department of Education, something opposed by 85% of Democrats, 67% of Independents, and 49% of Republicans.
Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy connected well with the audience and with the gut concerns of much of the Republican base, at least at first. He certainly outshone de Santis, and is entirely correct in that this country needs a younger leader.
His calls to drill, frack, expand nuclear power, and destroy EPA regulations fed into the broader Republican base beliefs that climate change is a hoax, the need to close southern border, use faith-based approaches to societal problems, and wage a cultural civil war.
He gave props to the Trump administration as the best the country ever had, and would pardon Trump without question. In a frightening suggestion by the New York Times’ Paul Krugman: with the Trump-Pence mutual abjuration, Ramaswamy could conceivably become the newly-anointed running mate of the ex-prez.
Charismatic and glib like the past president, Ramaswamy was slick but bonkers, mixing good policy – reopening mental health facilities, with the almost unachievable – no more money to be spent overseas, to the outré – put the $80 billion budget of the Department of Education in the hands of parents, and making people under 25 pass a test to vote.
The danger Ramaswamy poses is with his outright lies blazoned across mainstream news publications these past few days as well as his divisive statements and conspiracy theorizing will continue to draw a disproportionate amount of press attention, like flies to honey. Phenomena that also propelled Trump into the mainstream and power.
During and since the debate, Ramaswamy decried the civil rights sentiments sweeping the country, saying that affirmative action of any kind is nothing but institutionalized racism, and he came down hard on single mothers in promoting a return to heterosexual two-parent families – something conservative activists can glom onto but hardly realistic in today’s pluralistic society... unless he has access to a time machine as well as his personal fortune.
Florida governor Ron DeSantis did his campaign no favors with his increasingly controversial rhetoric against the Mexican government including using lethal force against the cartels and sending the American military across the border to close them down.
Instead of addressing the national issues in the questions, he doubled down on his questionable antics in Florida – restricting what is taught in schools, defending the lack of proven Covid protections, support for anti-abortion extremists, and attacking billionaire George Soros for funding progressive district attorneys. His positions on Covid and district attorneys scored high with his base but not with more progressive constituents he would need to win over to have a credible run for president.
Former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchison had the “shrink government” meme of Reagan by the tail (he wasn’t the only one) and wouldn’t let go, promising to reduce the non-defense workforce... but if people aren’t working and buying consumer goods, where is the tax base to support a bloated military?
He professed compassion for the unborn, and the need to address drugs and addiction. He promoted dumping many current obligations of the Federal government on the states, but didn’t address where the states might find the funds. He suggested using economic pressure on Mexico to stop the challenges at the border but had no concrete suggestions. Perhaps his finest line was in calling out Trump for being morally not qualified to be president.
Current North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum bought his way into the debate by underwriting $20 gift cards for anyone who contributed even $1 to his campaign to get to the required 40,000 unique donors. He led the charge celebrating the call for small town values and reducing federal government in favor of state control over issues important to the people. He cited the need for innovation in education and expansion of computer science training.
Burgum called for new leadership to bring out the best of America. However, he seemed to lack not only experience of dealing with the rest of the world on a federal level, but also concrete ideas on how to achieve his purported policies – addressing energy concerns on the macro level and the need to defend the southern border against fentanyl.
Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie faced an audience full of Trump supporters, and garnered rounds of booing for his unapologetic criticism of the Ex. On the other hand, he may have landed the best double-barreled zinger of the night, calling out Ramaswamy:
“I’ve had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT standing up here. The last person in one of these debates … who stood in the middle of the stage and said, ‘What’s a skinny guy with an odd last name doing up here?’ was Barack Obama, and I’m afraid we’re dealing with the same type of amateur standing on the stage tonight.”
Christie moved in the opposite direction than many others in the debate, expressing a desire for federal prosecutors to take over from the states. He emphasized the law applies to all and, thanking Pence for his stand on January 6th, would strongly support the Constitution.
He promoted himself as standing for law and order and would stop rewarding people who break the law – including illegal immigrants, China for sending chemicals to cartels, Trump’s murderous buddy Putin, as well as the Ex himself.
South Carolina Senator Tim Scott’s religious conservatism was too much on display to make him more than a token challenger for the Republican nomination. While making excellent points about the impact of poverty on people, the need to restore hope and create opportunities, to bring jobs home, he was aggressively hawkish on China, India, Africa, and Mexico.
He would fire the IRS staff to fund protecting the southern border and build up the American war machine although, with the IRS defunded, he might not have a source of cash. He would break the backs of the teachers unions (78% of Democrats, 54% of Independents, and 39% of Republicans oppose). He would fight California, New York and Illinois for the lives to which the “creator” gave inalienable rights. His Judeo-Christian rights approach was more Bible-thumper than that of Pence, but just as offensive to any atheist or agnostic who would prefer to keep church far removed from state.
Overall, there was just too much invoking of God on that stage, especially given distinct lack of morality in much of what was said.
The reason that Americans have been leaving their churches in droves is not that they have lost their belief in a God so much as that they have lost confidence in religious leaders and in the church’s moral leadership.
Religious views should be kept personal to those who espouse them. If political leaders feel that they need to prop themselves up with references from religious tracts, perhaps they lack the real leadership skills the country needs. Those on display all failed the sniff test, both as potential leaders and as moral archetypes.
If the Republican Party is to regain any credibility, it should start by ensuring that those who want to lead understand that Americans have more in common with each other than those who thrive on appealing to their differences acknowledge. And that they want a president that they can admire as a decent human being.
The heterodoxy of six of the candidates thinking it would be cool to have a convict as their president was pretty shocking.
(Liz Amsden is a contributor to CityWatch and an activist from Northeast Los Angeles with opinions on much of what goes on in our lives. She has written extensively on the City's budget and services as well as her many other interests and passions. In her real life she works on budgets for film and television where fiction can rarely be as strange as the truth of living in today's world.)