The 4 worst moments from the second Republican presidential debate

The 4 worst moments from the second Republican presidential debate

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, left, argues a point with businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, right, between Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, center, during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by FOX Business Network and Univision, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

By Keya Vakil

September 28, 2023

If you skipped Wednesday’s Republican presidential primary debate, we don’t blame you. 

The second debate featured seven candidates, who combined, are trailing frontrunner Donald Trump by a whopping 17 points in the polls, making it a bit of an exercise in futility. 

Trump opted to skip the debate and instead speak to non-union workers at a non-union business in Michigan, while claiming he was visiting striking autoworkers with the United Auto Workers (UAW) union.

Despite being the elephant in the room, Trump’s name barely came up as the debate devolved into a chaotic mess that included a two minute argument about curtains, several minutes of candidates yelling over each other, a candidate calling Donald Trump “Donald Duck,” and former Vice President Mike Pence making sure Americans know that he has intercourse with his wife.

At least one of the candidates who participated in the debate acknowledged what a disaster it was afterwards in an interview with Fox News. 

“If I was at home watching that,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said, “I would have changed the channel.”

But even if the debate is unlikely to affect the outcome of the Republican primary, it says a lot about the state of the party. Here are the four of the most notable moments from the debate:

1. Republicans Attack Teachers and Public Schools

For the second time in as many debates, the candidates on stage attacked teachers, claiming that teachers’ unions were at fault for the issues in public schools, rather than over a decade of elected officials underfunding them.

“This public school system is no longer run by the public. It is run by the teachers unions in this country,” former New Jersey governor Chris Christie claimed, as he accused millions of unionized teachers of “strangling” public education. 

Christie’s attack then took an ugly turn, as he attacked First Lady Jill Biden, a teacher, and seemed to suggest she was sleeping with the president in order to advocate for teachers. 

“When you have the president of the United States sleeping with a member of the teachers union, there is no chance that you could take the stranglehold away,” Christie said. “They have an advocate inside the White House every day.”

That comment prompted Pence to later chime in, with a joke that fell flat.

“My wife isn’t a member of the teachers union, but I’ve got to admit, I’ve been sleeping with a teacher for 38 years,” he said. 

Pence also reiterated his desire to abolish the Department of Education, which other candidates have also endorsed. 

Polling suggests both of these stances are unpopular among most voters. A recent survey from Navigator found that 55% of Americans have a favorable view of teachers unions, compared to only 25% who have an unfavorable view. Another poll from Data for Progress found that only 24% of voters would support shutting down the Department of Education, compared to 67% who would oppose it.

2. Republicans Tell Striking Workers They’re Picketing for the Wrong Thing

The debate opened with candidates being asked to comment on the ongoing UAW strike, in which more than 18,000 workers and counting are on strike against the Big 3 automakers—Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis—in search of better wages, benefits, and retirement security. 

While President Biden visited the picket line in Michigan on Tuesday, the vast majority of Republicans have declined to support the strike. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who has said he would fire striking federal workers if he were elected president, declined to say during the debate if he stood with UAW workers.

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley argued that Biden’s legislative policies and inflation were the reason workers were striking, not the Big 3’s refusal to make a fair deal with their workers amid record corporate profits.

Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, meanwhile, tried to express sympathy with UAW workers in one moment, and then said they were embracing “victimhood” in the next and told them to “go picket in front of the White House in Washington, D.C.,” instead of striking against the companies that employ them. 

Ramaswamy’s comments struck a similar tone to what Trump said during his visit to Michigan, as both candidates suggested they knew better than the workers themselves what they should be on strike for. 

“Your current negotiations don’t mean as much as you think,” Trump told non-union workers masquerading as union workers. “I watch you out there with the pickets, but I don’t think you’re picketing for the right thing.”

3. Medicare and Medicaid Were Worse for Black People Than Slavery, Apparently

In one of the most bizarre moments of the night, Scott went from unequivocally stating that slavery was bad for Black people to then suggesting it wasn’t as bad as President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” agenda, which included the creation of Medicare and Medicaid and a major increase in Social Security benefits.

“Black families survived slavery! We survived poll taxes and literacy tests. We survived discrimination being woven into the laws of our country,” Scott said. “What was hard to survive was Johnson’s Great Society, where they decided to put money—where they decided to take the Black father out of the household to get a check in the mail and you can now measure that in unemployment and crime and devastation.”

Scott’s comments echo years of Republican attacks on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, but he wasn’t the only candidate to attack these sorts of social programs during the debate.

When confronted with a question about Florida’s high uninsured rate, which is worse than the national average, DeSantis said it was because Florida was a “dynamic state” without many government benefits to help support people. 

DeSantis has notably refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which would provide coverage to roughly 800,000 to 1.1 million Floridians, with the federal government bearing 90% of the cost. 

Florida is one of only 10 states to refuse to expand Medicaid. 

4. Republicans Continue to Attack Transgender Kids

In what was perhaps the ugliest section of the debate, several candidates went out of their way to attack transgender people, particularly children. 

“Transgenderism, especially in kids, is a mental health disorder,” Ramaswamy said. “I will ban genital mutilation or chemical castration under the age of 18.”

Pence went one step further, calling for a federal ban on gender-affirming care “anywhere in the country,” without specifying if he meant for minors or for all transgender people.

To be clear, being transgender is not a mental health disorder and children’s genitals are not being mutilated. Young children cannot undergo operations to change their gender, with nationally-recognized medical guidelines recommending patients be at least 15 years old to receive any surgeries, and even then, only in special circumstances.

In other words, the overwhelming majority of gender-affirming surgeries occur among adults, and in the rare cases they happen in teens, they almost always occur after many discussions with parents, mental health providers, and physicians.

Despite all this, Republicans and right-wing activists have ruthlessly targeted the transgender community for political gain, introducing more than 500 bills across the country this year specifically targeting trans people, according to the Trans Legislation Tracker

While the electoral impact of those efforts has an incredibly poor track record, they’ve continued to target transgender kids and ban gender-affirming care for minors.

This Is Trump’s Race to Lose and No One’s Coming Close to Him

Ultimately, the debate is unlikely to matter at all in terms of the primary race.

Despite his 91 criminal charges, prior efforts to overturn the 2020 election, and incitement of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol, Donald Trump is running away with the Republican nomination for president.

Wednesday’s debate didn’t change anything about the dynamics of the race, and it’s increasingly unlikely anything will. This is Trump’s Republican Party.

  • Keya Vakil

    Keya Vakil is the deputy political editor at COURIER. He previously worked as a researcher in the film industry and dabbled in the political world.

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