It’s the end of September – the beginning of 2023’s fall season – and the crowded Republican field of hopeful candidates in the primary election has once again been culled. Last month marked the first Republican presidential debate with eight candidates, but last night’s two-hour debate at the picturesque hangar at Ronald Reagan’s presidential library in Simi Valley, California, had a slightly smaller roster of aspiring nominees. Nevertheless, fireworks still flew.
Aired on Fox News Channel, Fox Business, and free speech video-sharing platform Rumble, the second Republican presidential debate was moderated by Fox News Channel host Dana Perino, Fox Business Network host Stuart Varney, and Univision anchor Ilia Calderón. Only seven qualified and participated after achieving polling and donor benchmarks, as well as signing the RNC’s pledge to eventually support the final nominee.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former Vice President Mike Pence, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum slugged it out over key issues for American voters. Let’s unpack just a few of the most notable moments from the debate – some arguably spicier than others.
1. Trump Wasn’t Even on Stage
As seven Republican candidates took the debate stage Wednesday night, one was notably missing – the irrefutable front-runner and former president, Donald Trump. Instead of duking it out with the other candidates, all hopeful to end up with their name on the GOP ticket in Fall 2024, Trump once again made the power move to skip the event entirely.
While the other candidates debated in California, Trump was in Michigan, holding a rally with a target audience of auto workers. This move came during the United Auto Workers union strike against the Big Three (General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis) to demand a 40% pay raise and demonstrated Trump’s strategy to pass on punching down candidates polling far behind him and instead targeting sitting president Joe Biden.
A large cohort of Republican voters actually supported Trump’s choice to sit out the first debate, but initial surveys suggested most GOP voters hoped he’d show up to Simi Valley. By appearing instead in Michigan, Trump positioned himself as an ally for blue-collar workers, harkening back to his iconic 2016 campaign rhetoric to “Make America Great Again” by bringing manufacturing jobs back to the states and away from China.
Without the proverbial elephant in the room, the debate somehow felt less like a cutthroat game show episode peppered with Trump’s witty comebacks and biting remarks from competing candidates – moments that went down in meme history.
A couple of notable sound bites popped up when candidates addressed how President Biden had recently been at the United Auto Workers union picket line. Scott used the opportunity to say that Biden shouldn’t “be on the picket line he should be at the Southern Border.”
"If I was giving advice to the workers, I would say go picket in front of the White House," Ramaswamy said, referring to the striking workers by pointing out how his own family growing up struggled to make ends meet. “That's really where the protest needs to be.”
But, some candidates capitalized on Trump’s absence, like Christie, who had a somewhat cringeworthy moment talking directly to the camera to address the frontrunner.
“Donald, I know you're watching. You can't help yourself,” Christie said.
DeSantis also piped up about Trump, leveraging how, during his presidency, he had added $7.8 trillion to the U.S. debt and that the frontrunner should have been there on stage to address records like these.
2. Boosting Border Security or Ending Birthright Citizenship Outright?
When pointing out how America spends tens of billions of dollars to address our migrant crisis, moderators posed the question: Are we wasting money?
Haley blamed President Biden, saying that he waved “the green flag,” and now both border crossings and fentanyl are rising. She urged that we should defund sanctuary cities, but Ramaswamy took it one step further.
"I favor ending birthright citizenship for the kids of illegal immigrants in this country," he said. "Now the left will howl about the Constitution and the 14th Amendment. The difference between me and them is I've actually read the 14th Amendment."
Ramaswamy also proposed that we should increase military presence at the southern border and end foreign aid to Mexico and Central America. In his words, we should “seal the Swiss cheese at the southern border.”
Crime and lawlessness are on the rise. Whether you’re in a big, inner city or stuck in the suburbs, you’ve probably noticed a surge in shoplifting and, sadly, violent offenses. Moderators gave candidates the chance to share how they, as president, would end a revolving door of criminal behavior.
DeSantis leveraged that an increase in crime in cities demonstrates decay in America. He noted that, under his watch, Florida’s crime rate has hit a 50-year-low. Furthermore, he said that Floridians are safer now that he had removed two Soros-funded, progressive prosecutors serving as District Attorneys.
3. China Has Its Hands in Everything…Including What Felt Like Every Question
Several questions throughout the night revolved around China. DeSantis was given a question about how the country does business in Latin America. He pointed out how, in Florida, his administration banned the CCP from buying land and answered that America needs a “totally new approach” to addressing the Asian nation.
"The reason why we're in this mess is because elites in DC, for far too long, have chosen surrender over strength when it comes to the Chinese Communist Party,” he said. “Some people in our country got rich. Our industrial base got hollowed out, and they have been able to build the second-most powerful military in the entire world.”
A few candidates used questions related to China as opportunities to call Ramaswamy out, like Pence who said, "I'm glad Vivek pulled out of his business deals in China. Must have been around the same time he decided to vote for the first time."
Unsurprisingly, Ramaswamy caught heat for being the only Republican candidate on TikTok. But, in response to criticism, he pointed out how part of winning elections is being able to reach younger generations. Ramaswamy urged that Democrats, in comparison to Republicans, reach generations at a rate of three to one, and defended his campaign presence on the short-form video platform.
Haley wasn’t too happy to hear Ramaswamy’s defense, calling TikTok one of the most dangerous apps before firing insults over to him: "TikTok is one of the most dangerous social media accounts we could have ... honestly, every time I hear you I feel a little bit dumber ... they can get your contacts, they can get your financial information, they can get your emails and messages ... we can't trust you."
4. Can the GOP Spoil the Teachers Union’s “Stranglehold”?
Moderator Perino tossed a question over to Haley about school choice policies and how parents “can’t wait four years” for something more substantial than what public education currently has to offer. Both Haley and Scott were called out online for grandstanding, name-dropping hot-button acronyms like DEI and CRT, and giving platitudes instead of feasible policy solutions to the wide swath of education issues.
Pence may have been unfocused on other questions, but since his wife is an educator (which he made a point to uncomfortably highlight by saying: “I’ve been sleeping with a teacher for 38 years”), he was at least willing to state his desire to abolish the Department of Education.
Haley, on the other hand, was only willing to say that she wants states to be able to decide their policy on school choice – not go the full nine yards and remove the federal department entirely.
DeSantis has been incredibly vocal over the past few years about how Florida could be a model for the rest of the nation when it comes to education: "My wife and I, we have a 6, 5 and 3 year old. This is personal to us. We didn't just talk about universal school choice. We enacted universal school choice. We didn't just talk about the Parents' Bill of Rights. We now have American civics in the Constitution, in our schools in a really big way, just like President Reagan asked for in his farewell address back in 1989. Florida is showing how it's done. We're standing with parents and our kids are benefiting."
Ramaswamy had several other poignant thoughts on parental rights, which other candidates didn’t seem gutsy enough to admit. When asked a question if it should be federal law for parents to be notified when their child tells teachers or administrators at school that they want to identify as the opposite sex, he said, “Transgenderism, especially in kids, is a mental health disorder.”
"It is not compassionate to affirm a kid's confusion. That is not compassion. That is cruelty,” Ramaswamy continued, mentioning how he had met detransitioners Chloe Cole and Katie Anderson on the campaign trail. “I met two young women, Chloe and Katie, early in this campaign, who are in their 20s, who now regret getting double mastectomies and a hysterectomy. One of them will never have children. And the fact that we allowed that to happen in this country is barbaric."
5. Perino’s “Survivor” Reference Fell a Bit Flat
Moderator Perino made an odd decision when closing out the debate by asking the candidates to write down which of their competitors they thought should be voted off “the island.” Immediately, DeSantis and Ramaswamy rejected the question.
"We're happy to debate. I think that that's disrespectful to my fellow competitors,” DeSantis said. “Let's talk about the future of the country!"
Christie, on the other hand, grabbed at yet another chance to attack Trump by saying that he’d vote the frontrunner off the island. “Every person on this stage is showing the respect for Republican voters to come here to express their views,” Christie said. “This guy has not only divided our party. He's divided families all over this country. He's divided friends all over this country."
In response to “Never Trump” Republicans like Christie, who wish to overhaul Trump’s legacy, Ramaswamy got the final word of the night by praising the frontrunner’s term in office.
“The America First agenda does not belong to one man. It does not belong to Donald Trump. It doesn't belong to me. It belongs to you, the people of this country,” Ramaswamy said. “And the question is: Who's going to unite this country and take the America First agenda to the next level? When we rallied behind the cry to Make America Great Again, we did not just hunger for a single man. We hungered for the unapologetic pursuit of excellence. We will unite this country to take the America First agenda to the next level."
In my opinion as a viewer, there actually weren’t many substantial insights to glean from this debate. What’s more, the moderating team did us a bit dirty throughout the first segments by not letting several candidates answer questions on the same topic while simultaneously allowing them to talk over one another.
Though early polling numbers can indicate whether or not a candidate has any real viability to make it the full nine yards, we know from the 2016 election that, sometimes, data can’t necessarily be trusted, and the eventual frontrunner could quickly emerge out of the blue. It’s true, Trump has a significant lead over the other candidates, but let’s be honest, this debate likely didn’t do much to improve their numbers.
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