Discover more from The Bulwark
The GOP’s Accidental Case for Joe Biden
At the second debate, the Republican candidates undermined their arguments against the president.
THE REPUBLICAN CANDIDATES FOR PRESIDENT have a shared set of talking points: The economy sucks, the government is too big, the national debt is out of control, and we need a border wall to stop illegal immigration. In Wednesday’s debate, they hit all those points. But they also revealed, inadvertently, that the talking points are phony. Their comments showed that President Joe Biden is doing a better job than they want to admit—and that the GOP is thoroughly hypocritical.
Here are five examples.
1. Jobs. The candidates accused Biden of “disastrous economic policies,” “economic decline,” and losing factories to other countries. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina said the next president must create jobs. But when the discussion turned to other topics, the candidates raised complaints that exposed the truth: Under Biden, there are more than enough jobs to go around.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said he welcomed legal immigrants, because “we want you here in this country, to fill the 6 million vacant jobs we have.” North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum said cutting employees from government payrolls would be painless, because “we’ve got 10 million jobs open. They’d have plenty to do.” Burgum warned, however, that criticism of cops was driving many out of the profession, because “there’s all these jobs available in America. Why would you be a policeman if people don’t even respect them?”
Inflation remains a big problem. But Biden has been a great jobs president, and the Republican candidates know it.
Look past the horse race to see what’s really at stake in 2024. Sign up for a free or paid Bulwark subscription today.
2. Health care. One of the debate’s moderators, Fox News host Dana Perino, asked former Vice President Mike Pence why he and Donald Trump had failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act. “Trump-Pence had congressional majorities for at least the first two years, and you did not deliver on that promise,” she reminded him. “Obamacare, right now, it is more popular than ever. Why should Americans trust you if you become president to fix that? Or is Obamacare here to stay?”
Pence responded by changing the subject. “First, let me speak to the mass shootings issue,” he said. He spent his allotted time talking about the shootings, which had been raised a few minutes earlier. When he finished, Perino noted his evasion. She asked him: “Does that mean Obamacare is here to stay?”
At that point, Pence fell back on a broader message that he would disperse federal programs to states. Clearly, his heart wasn’t in talking about Obamacare. It’s easy to see why: As Perino observed, the program is now popular. In the most recent Morning Consult poll on the subject, taken last fall, voters approved of the ACA by 52 to 36 percent. Independents supported it by a similar margin.
In Gallup’s tracking, the public has gradually shifted from opposing to supporting federally guaranteed health insurance. Ten years ago, when Gallup asked whether it was “the responsibility of the federal government to make sure all Americans have healthcare coverage,” the respondents said by a margin of 56 to 42 percent that it wasn’t. But those numbers have flipped: In Gallup’s most recent survey on the question, conducted last fall, respondents said by a margin of 57 percent to 40 percent that it is the federal government’s responsibility.
3. Debt. On the campaign trail, Republican candidates blast Biden for running up the national debt. But in the debate, some admitted that their own party is guiltier. While chiding Biden for adding $5 trillion to the debt, Christie noted that “during the Trump administration, they added $7 trillion.” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis agreed, challenging Trump to “defend his record, where they added $7.8 trillion to the debt. That set the stage for the inflation that we have.”
It isn’t just Trump. DeSantis implicitly affirmed that Republicans in Congress were also to blame: “The people in Washington . . . They borrowed, they printed, they spent.” Perino put that point to Scott: “The national debt is nearly doubled in your time in office.” And Nikki Haley, who served as governor of South Carolina during part of Scott’s tenure, also rebuked the senator: “He’s increased the national debt. He voted for the spending.”
4. The border. The Republican candidates love to pretend that they’ll seal the border by finishing the wall Trump promised to build. But they know the wall won’t solve the problem.
Three months ago, after visiting the Arizona border and talking to law enforcement officials, DeSantis conceded that the wall is vulnerable. “Even in places where there were really serious steel beams,” he explained, “these guys in the cartels, they can cut through the really fortified steel beams.”
On Aug. 23, in the first Republican presidential debate, Pence declared that the Trump administration, by partially constructing the wall, had “secured the southern border.” But in Wednesday’s debate, Vivek Ramaswamy debunked that claim. “Building the wall is not enough,” said Ramaswamy. “They’re building cartel-financed tunnels underneath that wall. Semi-trucks can drive through them.”
5. Big government. The candidates pledged to “make the federal government smaller,” shift programs “from the federal government down to the states,” and get “the government the hell off [the] back” of entrepreneurs. In a post-debate interview on Fox, DeSantis called for “a limited government that works beside us and on our behalf, not a weaponized government that comes after us.”
But none of these candidates is likely to win the Republican nomination. That prize will probably go to Trump, whose vindictive authoritarianism would fully weaponize the federal government. Even his former vice president, Pence, acknowledged in the debate that Trump “has a plan to start to consolidate more power in Washington, D.C.—consolidate more power in the executive branch.”
Pence is right. In videos outlining his agenda for a second term, Trump has promised to send the National Guard into cities (even if local authorities don’t want this), impose stop-and-frisk policies on local police (by threatening to withhold federal funds), turn the college accreditation system into a “weapon” against the left (in part by “removing all Marxist diversity, equity, and inclusion bureaucrats”), and override Congress’s constitutional authority to spend money (by rejecting the Impoundment Control Act of 1974). Trump says he’ll use impoundment as a “tool with which to obliterate the Deep State” and drive “globalists out of government.” Biden’s vision of government might be more expensive, but Trump’s is far more dangerous.
The debate ended with Perino inviting each candidate to name a rival who should get out of the race. The candidates balked. The only opponent they’re all willing to denounce, officially, is Biden. But with every truth that escapes their lips, they undermine the case against him.
Share this free post with an online acquaintance and politics-watcher.