Some years ago, I tried to explain Democrats and Republicans to some people from Europe. I said, “The Democrats are our socialist party and the Republicans are our nationalist party.” I was an oversimplification, but I was trying to get at the essence of it.
The Democratic debates of 2019 had been soaked in the thought that capitalism was not working. They didn’t say “capitalism.” They said “the economy.” Only Bernie called himself a socialist. But the theme was one of inequality and the failure of proper distribution. Many times, the Democrats’ remedies came in the form of “All Americans should have X.”
The relationship with China has problems, but calling that country “the number-one threat to the United States” is taking nationalism way too far.
I write on the day after the August 23 debate among eight Republicans. They didn’t talk like the Democrats, condemning the oil companies or the health insurers. They did, however, have a bogeyman: China. Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina make an implicitly protectionist promise to bring back manufacturing from China and “create ten million jobs.” Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley slammed President Biden’s support of electric vehicles because “half of them are made in China.” “The real threat we face today is Communist China,” said entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy. And North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum said, “China is the number one threat to our country.”
Always an enemy. None of the eight candidates said anything favorable about the world’s most populous country. I condemn its grip on Hong Kong, and I don’t support its claim to Taiwan. But despite the name of its ruling party, China has not been a communist country for many years — and it has been decades since communism was a global movement. China has deep capitalistic ties with us, mostly to mutual benefit. The relationship with China has problems, but calling that country “the number-one threat to the United States” is taking nationalism way too far.
On foreign policy, the Republicans clashed over the defense of Ukraine. Following the lead of former President Donald Trump, Ramaswamy was for ending US support. “Ukraine is not a priority for the United States of America,” he said. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis took a similar line. “Our first obligation is to defend our nation,” he said. The rest of them were for defending Ukraine. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie saw it as a moral stand against “autocratic killing.” Former Vice President Mike Pence referred to “the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan” and said that if Russia is not stopped in the Ukraine, it will “roll across a NATO border.” Does he really think so? Haley did. Reviving an argument from the interventionists of 1940–41, she said, “Ukraine is the front line of defense for us. Poland and the Baltics are next.” She also called Israel “the front line of defense with Iran.”
This was one of the few moments in the two hours of Republican talk when any of the candidates acknowledged that they would have to accommodate Democrats.
Abortion was another difference. Since the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade, abortion has been a hard nut for Republicans. The anti-abortion people are a majority among party activists, but a decided minority among Americans who vote. To get elected in not-so-conservative states, Republicans have to moderate their views in ways the activists won’t allow.
Nikki Haley, the only woman among the Republican eight, began her statement by stating her belief: “I’m pro-life.” But a federal ban on abortion would take a majority in the House and three-fifths of the Senate, she said — and that could never happen. “I’m not going to put women in jail or give them the death penalty,” she said. This was one of the few moments in the two hours of Republican talk when any of the candidates acknowledged that they would have to accommodate Democrats.
Burgum, who had signed North Dakota’s ban on abortion at the sixth week of pregnancy, said, “We should not have a federal abortion ban. It’s the 10th Amendment.”
Pence was not for the 10th Amendment. He was for a national law banning abortion after the 15th week. “Consensus is the opposite of leadership,” he said. Abortion was a matter of religion for him, and he was not going to wiggle on it.
DeSantis dodged the question. In Florida, DeSantis had signed a bill banning abortion after the sixth week, but when he was asked whether he would support a similar law nationwide, he changed the subject.
Not one of the eight Republicans argued for specific spending cuts to reduce the deficit.
Ukraine and abortion were the two issues of clearest division, though neither is at the center of what the federal government actually does. Mostly it spends money inside the United States, an activity Republicans used to be suspicious of.
There was some rhetoric along that line, but I am used to it and have learned to discount it. Asa Hutchinson, who was governor of Arkansas 2015–2023, said he’d cut the number of state employees by 14% and left the state with a $2 billion surplus. He promised to cut federal nondefense employment by 10% if he were elected — but Asa Hutchinson is not going to be the nominee. Tim Scott talked about reining in government, but it was noted that he’d voted for Trump’s COVID spending — and he’s not going to be president, either, I think. Nikki Haley allowed that “Donald Trump added $8 trillion to our debt,” but it was less of an argument about policy than a jab at the candidate who was not there.
Pence didn’t care about cutting the deficit. “We’re going to cut taxes further,” he said. When challenged about the Trump administration’s spending, he replied, “We rebuilt our military.” He volunteered that he would cut out the Department of Education, but instead of saving the money, he said he would “block-grant it to the states.” Ramaswamy said he would use the money being sent to Ukraine to “defend the southern border” instead. Not one of the eight Republicans argued for specific spending cuts to reduce the deficit.
Simply stated, he is not qualified to be president. Neither was Trump — and do you want another one of those?
The differences between the candidates were more about style and emphasis. Pence was the most rigid. He struck me, and not for the first time, as too bound by belief. He would be a stick-in-the-mud president. DeSantis was the slipperiest. More than the rest of them, he dodged questions, flouted the rules of the debate, and tried to wrest control of the stage. He clearly likes power. When asked whether he would send troops into Mexico to fight the drug cartels, he said, “Yes, I would. The president of the United States has to use all available powers as commander-in-chief.” Whether he would really commit an act of war against Mexico I doubt, but I’m wary of politicians who talk that way.
Ramaswamy, the youngest on the stage — 38 — was the most radical. He talked about 1776, and said, “Do you want an incremental reformer, or do you want a revolution?” He was for an overturning of the “federal administrative state.” I’m all for a cutting back the administrative state, but the talk of revolution makes me wary. I’m nearly 72, and I have learned not to take certain statements, and certain people, seriously. Candidates for president are interviewing for a job. The job requires deep knowledge and experience, and also moral character —principles, but also imagination and suppleness of mind. Ramaswamy has no experience of political office. Simply stated, he is not qualified to be president. Neither was Trump — and do you want another one of those? Ramaswamy has an educated glibness — Christie said he sounded like ChatGPT — but in the art of political bullshitting he is no match for The Donald. Well, there is not going to be a President Ramaswamy.
Strictly by their resumes, the three candidates who are the most qualified are Pence, who was governor of Indiana and vice president; Haley, who was governor of South Carolina and UN ambassador; and Christie, who was a US attorney and governor of New Jersey. Of the three, Christie spoke more about reality and less about what was in his head. Haley was much better that way than Pence, and Christie was better than Haley. When Christie said Trump’s conduct on January 6 was “beneath the office of the President,” the audience booed him. He replied, “Booing is allowed, but it doesn’t change the truth . . . We have a president of the United States who disrespects the Constitution.” That needed to be said, and bluntly. Christie is the right age — 60, compared with 80 for Biden and 77 for Trump. I didn’t agree with him about Ukraine, but of the eight choices, he seemed the best of the lot.