early and often

Republican Debaters Want to Go to War With Everyone (Except Trump)

Photo: The Washington Post via Getty Im

Moderators of the less-crowded third Republican presidential debate in Miami focused on questions about foreign and defense policy. This seemed to put the five candidates onstage — Chris Christie, Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Tim Scott — into a fighting mood, yet they still showed no interest in fighting their common rival, the overwhelming front-runner Donald Trump. If he watched the show, he probably enjoyed it.

The opening segment revolved around the Israel-Hamas War, and the candidates seemed mostly worried that Israel would have pity on Palestinians and fail to exterminate Hamas at any cost. DeSantis, Haley, and Scott appeared eager for an immediate war with Iran.

Similarly, when the conversation got around to the southern U.S. border, the candidates were almost frothing for military action not only against unauthorized migrants and drug cartels, but against Mexico itself. Ramaswamy, who lived up to his reputation as a wise-cracking crackpot through the debate, actually called for building a wall on the northern border with Canada.

Egged on by moderator Hugh Hewitt, a Navy-obsessed conservative pundit, all five candidates called for a lot more defense spending even as they railed against debts and deficits. To the extent they disagreed on foreign policy, it was mostly about whether defending or defunding Ukraine was the best tack for combating China. (Haley and Christie took the former position, while DeSantis and Ramaswamy took the latter.)

Getting closer to home, there was total unanimity among the debaters on the need to ignore climate change and frantically resume uninhibited exploitation of fossil fuels. Haley called DeSantis a “liberal on the environment,” forcing him to defend his determination to frack and drill until the icecaps fully melt.

All the debaters desperately need to damage the standing of Trump. But when invited to do so, they either demurred (Scott, Ramaswamy, and strangely, Christie) or gave brief and pro forma whacks at the former president’s right flank (DeSantis and Haley both criticized him for adding to the national debt). I’m sure Haley and Christie thrilled Trump (and Democrats) by calling for the politically suicidal idea of means-testing Social Security. Similarly, in discussing the abortion-driven beatdown Republicans just endured in Kentucky, Ohio, and Virginia this very week, none of the debaters could really match Trump’s candid argument months ago that the abortion issue is just a loser for the GOP in 2024.

Despite a generally less chaotic atmosphere than in the second GOP debate in California last month, the relatively monochromatic display of right-wing extremist unity ensured that explosive exceptions will get the most attention. We can mostly thank bad-boy Ramaswamy for that. He went after RNC chairman Ronna McDaniel and debate moderator Kristen Welker from the get-go and eventually demanded that Democrats toss aside Joe Biden in favor of some representative of his Radical Left, “managerial elite” puppet masters. But in the most surely viral moment, after Haley criticized him for campaigning via the TikTok platform that all the candidates were attacking as a vehicle for Chinese seduction of Our Young People, Ramaswamy noted Haley’s daughter had been active on TikTok. She audibly said: “You’re just scum.”

This was after Ramawamy called her “Dick Cheney in three-inch heels” and did a quick drive-by reference to talk of DeSantis’s high-heeled boots by saying “we have two of them on the stage.”

Overall, Haley and DeSantis were the most fluid of the debaters, though the Florida governor didn’t help his reputation for being robotic with a closing statement that all but verbatim repeated his answer to the very first question. Despite chortling predictions from his campaign manager that he’d go medieval on Haley and DeSantis, Scott did no such thing, and instead probably wrapped up his candidacy with a characteristically contradictory closing statement genially calling for a conservative Christian culture war. Christie seemed to be playing the role of the adult in the room who doesn’t even pretend he is playing to win.

The fourth debate next month in Tuscaloosa is likely to have just two or three or at the most four candidates given its higher polling requirements, unless Trump decides to drop in to administer a coup de grâce. We’ll see how bloodthirsty the remaining candidates are then — toward each other, and toward the many enemies they perceive at home and abroad.

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GOP Debaters Want to Go to War With Everyone (Except Trump)