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GOP Debate Gets Mean, Especially About Gender Identity

GOP Debate Gets Mean, Especially About Gender Identity

From left: Chris Christie, Mike Pence, Ron DeSantis, and Vivek Ramaswamy
Win McNamee/Getty Images

There were a lot of insults going around, with long-shot candidate Vivek Ramaswamy leaving a mark.

LGBTQ+ issues and other culture-war battles didn’t figure largely in Wednesday night’s Republican presidential debate from Milwaukee, the first of the 2024 election cycle — but when the issues did come up, anti-transgender rhetoric dominated.

The eight candidates for the GOP nomination sparred mostly over who has the most experience, who would be toughest on crime, and who’d be best at undoing the damage President Joe Biden has supposedly done to the economy (actually, economic growth is strong, and unemployment is low). And the exchanges often got personal.

Businessman and political newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy, an entrepreneur from Ohio, made his presence known in a big way. He derided more experienced politicians as “super PAC puppets” and called himself “a patriot who tells the truth.”

Former Vice President Mike Pence, meanwhile, touted himself as the best-prepared, most experienced conservative in the race. “We don’t need to bring in a rookie,” he said.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Ramaswamy sounded like Chat GPT, an artificial intelligence program, and likened him to Barack Obama, which coming from Christie is not a compliment. “I’m afraid we’re dealing with the same type of amateur,” Christie said.

There was general agreement that Pence had done his constitutional duty in certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election, despite pressure from Donald Trump to overturn them. “Mike Pence said no, and he deserves credit for it,” Christie said.

However, most of the candidates, who’d been asked to sign a pledge to support the eventual Republican nominee, said they’d support Trump if he became the nominee, even if he is convicted of the crimes he’s been charged with. When Bret Baier, who moderated the debate along with his Fox News colleague Martha McCallum, asked the candidates who’d support Trump in that event to raise their hands, seven of the eight did so, with former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson being the only holdout. Christie, a vocal critic of Trump, said he was actually just waving off the question. He said Trump’s “conduct is beneath the office of president of the United States.”

Trump, who’s still polling ahead of all the other candidates, was notably absent from the debate stage. He had recorded an interview with far-right commentator Tucker Carlson that was released on X, formerly Twitter, as the debate went on.

Christie got some boos from the crowd, but responded, “Booing is allowed, but it doesn’t change the truth.” Ramaswamy accused Christie of focusing on “vengeance and grievance against Trump.”

Hutchinson said Trump is “morally disqualified” from being president and is also disqualified under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the latter being an argument put forth by conservative legal scholars, who cite the amendment’s ban on anyone holding public office who’s engaged in an insurrection against the government or given aid and comfort to its enemies.

In another raise-your-hand question, the candidates were asked to raise their hands if they believe climate change is real. None did, and Ramaswamy called climate change “a hoax,” totally contradicting the scientific consensus on the matter.

Nikki Haley, who has been South Carolina governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, did acknowledge caring about clean air and water, but she blamed pollution on other countries, such as China and India. The lineup in general promoted use of fossil fuels and said Biden puts too much emphasis on green energy.

On abortion rights, the candidates mostly called for restrictions but couldn’t agree on whether there should be a federal ban. Several accused Democrats of wanting to allow abortion up until birth, which is inaccurate. Pence said there should be a ban on abortion at the point in pregnancy when a fetus can feel pain, which he said is 15 weeks, although scientists say that point is much later in pregnancy. Pence endorsed a national ban, saying abortion is not just an issue for the states.

Haley said she’s “unapologetically pro-life” but pointed out the difficulty in getting a national ban through Congress. She also said there should be promotion of adoption and greater access to contraception — even though activists and politicians who want to ban or restrict abortion often target contraception as well.

LGBTQ+ issues didn’t come up until late in the debate, even though almost all the GOP hopefuls have taken anti-LGBTQ+ stances. Part of this came up in the context of education. “We need education in this country, not indoctrination,” said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who famously signed the nation’s first “don’t say gay or trans,” law banning instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools. DeSantis, who was not as large a presence in the debate as expected, bragged of banning critical race theory — an academic concept not used in K-12 schools anyway — and “gender ideology.”

McCallum noted that Haley has called keeping trans women out of women’s sports “the women’s rights issue of our time” — and McCallum referred to trans women as "biological boys" — but Haley elaborated little. She did say, “There’s a lot of crazy woke things happening in schools,” using the right wing’s word of choice to slam all things progressive and inclusive, and said she’d always fight for girls — as if trans inclusion were the greatest threat they face.

Another South Carolinian, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, said, “If God made you a man, you play sports against men.”

McCallum also pointed out that North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum signed trans-exclusionary sports laws in his state, despite having vetoed similar legislation earlier and having said there was almost no presence of trans athletes there. He said only, “In North Dakota, we made a priority of protecting women’s sports.” Burgum also took issue with the idea that schools are “indoctrinating” students.

Several candidates called for abolishing the U.S. Department of Education — something that conservatives have been pushing ever since the 1980s, shortly after the department was founded. They mostly supported so-called school choice, which usually means subsidizing tuition for private schools and making less money available to public schools; Pence said he wanted school choice nationwide. Some lambasted teachers’ unions, with Scott vowing to “break the back of teachers’ unions.”

There were likewise the usual slams against favorite targets such as George Soros, a philanthropist who funds liberal causes, and accusing Democrats of being soft on crime.

There was a moment of levity toward the end, when McCallum asked Christie about reports of unidentified flying objects and wondered if he’d “level” with Americans about UFOs. He took offense that such a question would be put to someone from New Jersey. “We’re different, but we’re not that different,” he said.

In 1938, Orson Welles famously put together a radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds that had Martians invading New Jersey.

Pictured, from left: Chris Christie, Mike Pence, Ron DeSantis, and Vivek Ramaswamy

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