Chris Christie, Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Tim Scott face off at the third Republican presidential primary debate in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

The Night Republican Candidates Got Serious

Finally, a debate of substance—with very little mention of Trump.

The political pros will tell you that global issues have little if any bearing on American elections. The Soviet Union, the Soviet collapse, NATO, Afghanistan—none of that mattered that much when it came to picking our commander in chief.

But last night, at the GOP presidential debate in Miami, the outside world felt like the only thing that mattered. One month after Hamas attacked Israel, and America—the West—found itself convulsed by young people rooting for the barbarians butchering and raping, there was more than a whiff of fear in the voices of the five candidates on stage. 

“We have to know the difference between good and evil,” Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under Trump, said. That’s the only way, she added, that we can “go back to the soul of America.”

Vivek Ramaswamy, the 38-year-old entrepreneur who has cast himself as Trump 2.0, called on the Democratic Party to “end this farce that Joe Biden is going to be your nominee. We know he’s not even the president of the United States. He’s a puppet for the managerial class. So have the guts to step up and be honest about who you’re actually going to put up. So we can have an honest debate. Biden should step aside. End his candidacy now. So we can see if it’s [Gavin] Newsom or Michelle Obama or whoever else.”

It is time, in other words, to have a serious conversation about what is happening. In America. In the world.

Israel, to hear it from the candidates, matters a lot

Ditto Ukraine.

Ditto Taiwan.

Ditto TikTok, which all the candidates on stage—Haley, Ramaswamy, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, and Senator Tim Scott—agreed poses a dire threat to the republic. The social media platform isn’t technically about foreign policy, but, being Chinese, it kind of is.

In one of the debate’s few tabloid moments, Ramaswamy accused Haley’s “own daughter” of using TikTok, to which Haley shot back, calling him “scum.”

Moderator Hugh Hewitt introduced the TikTok question by quoting from a Free Press essay on the issue by Rep. Mike Gallagher. Did the candidates agree with Gallagher that the app should be banned, he asked. 

It’s “spyware” and “poison,” Christie declared. Yes, he went on, “TikTok should be banned.”

It has to be confronted the same way China’s expanding navy—now the largest in the world—must be confronted, the same way our reliance on Chinese manufacturing must end.

“Yes, military deterrence, yes, economic decoupling, but also their role in our culture,” DeSantis said. “If we don’t, if we ignore that, we’re not going to be able to win the fight together.”

In fact, they fought about who was more anti-TikTok.

“Her own daughter was actually using the app for a long time,” Ramaswamy said of Haley’s 25-year-old child.

To which Haley replied, “Leave my daughter out of your voice,” before calling Ramaswamy “scum.”

It was a debate devoid of ideology. There were important, substantive differences between the candidates’ positions, but no one brandished their conservative bona fides. (Only Scott, who has portrayed himself as a Reagan Republican, seemed incapable of moving beyond the stale, soaring rhetoric, which used to bring GOP crowds to tears but now feels woefully out of touch.) Unlike in the first two showdowns, foreign policy dominated the first hour. 

Another major issue that elicited nuanced debate was abortion. Christie lamented that, in his home state of New Jersey, women can get an abortion up until they give birth—“I find that reprehensible.” But he wasn’t going to die on that hill. “That is what the people have voted for,” he said. 

Haley seemed to agree.

“I would support anything that would pass,” she said, when asked about whether she’d support a federal abortion measure. “I would sign anything that would get 60 Senate votes.”

She added: “This is a personal issue for every woman and every man.” She called for civility. She said, “There are some states that are going more on the pro-life side. I welcome that. There are some states that are going more on the pro-choice side. I wish that wasn’t the case, but the people decided.”

There are so many other things to worry about, they all agreed: the Middle East falling apart, Europe falling apart, the moral relativism on our college campuses, the fentanyl crisis, the housing crisis, the plight of rural America, crime, the debt, Social Security, energy independence, TikTok!

“We don’t need to divide America over this issue anymore,” Haley said of abortion. 

The unspoken fear seemed to be: What happens if we do keep dividing America? 

Which brings us to the Great Divider: Donald Trump, who is so far ahead in the polls—more than 60 percent of GOP voters support him—he doesn’t feel compelled to debate. All of them had embraced most or all of the Trump agenda: China, economic populism, immigration. But all of them (minus Ramaswamy) seemed to want, desperately, to move beyond the antics, the grandstanding that had traveled so well in 2016. 

None of that felt right in late 2023. It felt unserious.

“I’ll say this about Donald Trump,” Christie said. “Anybody who’s going to be spending the next year and a half of their life focusing on keeping themselves out of jail and courtrooms cannot lead this party or this country.”

Peter Savodnik is a writer and editor for The Free Press. Read his last piece “These Asian American Candidates Want to Make America Great Again,” and follow him on X (formerly Twitter) @petersavodnik.

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