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Ramaswamy-Pence debate reveals division within Republican Party

Disbelief appeared on Vivek Ramaswamy’s face. The Republican presidential candidates, without the frontrunner, were 42 minutes into their first debate when former Vice President Mike Pence challenged the young businessman’s claim that America was in the throes of a national identity crisis.

“We are not looking for a new national identity,” said Mr Pence, 64. “The American people are the most religious, freedom-loving, idealistic and hard-working people the world has ever known.”

“It’s not morning in America,” retorted Mr. Ramaswamy, 38, in his fast-paced Harvard debate style. “We are living in a dark time. And we have to admit that we are immersed in a kind of internal cold and cultural civil war.”

Extolling Ronald Reagan was once the safest space for an ambitious Republican. Yet here was an upstart candidate, with no public service background, standing at the center of a Republican debate and invoking Mr. Reagan’s famous 1984 theme, “morning in America,” not as a line of argument. applause, but to poke fun at one of the party’s staunchest conservatives. – an original product of the Reagan revolution – as if disconnected from the true condition of America.

This moment illustrates a rhetorical and substantive shift within the GOP that accelerated during the Trump era and is now being transmitted to the grassroots in purer form by Mr. Ramaswamy, who overtook the former vice president in late July. in national poll averages. It’s a shift to the so-called new right – often younger, often very online – that dismisses the sunny optimism of Mr. Reagan’s cronies as the delirious mumbles of “baby boomers”.

In heated new-right parlance, these older, more established Republicans — a group that includes Mr. Pence but also most members of the Republican conference in the U.S. Senate — have no idea ‘what time it is’. . They do not understand that the Republic is out of breath.

According to the New Right, conservatives like Mr Pence are hopelessly naive and must stop fetishizing civility, decency and the doomed ideal of “limited government”. New Right-aligned Republicans, like Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, argue that conservatives should instead use every lever of governmental power at their disposal to defeat the “woke” left.

Donald J. Trump established this theme during his 2016 presidential campaign. He reinforced it in his inaugural address in 2017, in which he offered a grim take on “American carnage.” And he continued his apocalyptic and vengeful rhetoric throughout his presidency. But Mr. Trump’s four criminal indictments have only intensified that sense of revenge.

Shortly before Mr. Trump was to go to Fulton County Jail on Thursday, Taylor Budowich, chief executive of the main pro-Trump super PAC, pointed to the Pence-Ramaswamy swap in the debate as emblematic of a larger battle. within the party.

“Last night, Vivek Ramaswamy challenged Vice President Mike Pence’s surprisingly naïve description of what’s plaguing America: ‘It’s not morning in America! We are living in a dark time,” Mr. Budowich wrote in a statement he sent to the PAC mailing list. “The existential crisis facing the Republican Party today is understanding the moment we live in.”

Saurabh Sharma, the 25-year-old founder of American Moment, a Washington, D.C.-based organization dedicated to staffing the next Republican administration with “America First” conservatives, saw the interaction between Mr. Pence and Mr. Ramaswamy as an interaction that “caused problems”. There is a fundamental division within the conservative movement.

“Older, well-meaning conservatives believe that the cultural and economic divide in America can be resolved with small policy changes,” Sharma said. “Generational change within the Conservative movement and the Republican Party will be the process by which quiet reformers give way to energetic young revolutionaries. »

During Wednesday night’s debate, the repeated clashes between Mr. Pence and Mr. Ramaswamy dramatized this generational and ideological divide. Issue after issue, they seemed to inhabit different planets and speak different languages.

Mr. Pence reminded the audience of the value of experience. Speaking to Mr Ramaswamy, he said now was not the time for on-the-job training, nor the time to risk a “rookie” in the White House. He spoke of the need for America to show leadership in the world, of “peace through strength”, and he presented Ukraine’s fight against Russia as a fight for freedom in which America must not shirk.

Mr Pence reminded the audience that he was a Conservative House leader “before, that was cool”. He quoted scriptures to explain his opposition to abortion rights. He talked about the budgets he balanced in Indiana and said Republicans had to deal with the national debt problem. He promised more tax cuts and stressed the need to reform social rights such as Social Security and Medicare – a statement that was once Republican orthodoxy but is now almost taboo after Ms. Trump has abandoned traditional fiscal conservatism.

Mr. Pence left the impression that America would be fine if only it could get back to how it is. “We just need a government again that is as good as our people,” he said.

Mr. Ramaswamy, listening, frowned contemptuously. “I don’t know what that slogan means,” he replied. “We must end the administrative state. »

In a break with Mr. Pence and his Reagan-inspired rhetoric, Mr. Ramaswamy has sought to present himself as the transformational figure of this era – ready to deliver a “Reagan Revolution” in the style of the 1980s. Mr. Ramaswamy hailed Mr. Reagan as someone who did what was right for his time, although he argued that “Reagan solutions” are not right for the present moment.

Former Reagan speechwriter Ken Khachigian agreed with much of what Mr. Pence was saying and criticized Mr. Ramaswamy for “using exaggerated expressions like ‘a dark moment'” which, in his view, did not provide “a good overview of what America is like today.”

“I think if there’s not a message of hope or a vision that America shares some of Reagan’s vision, then you’re pulling the curtain on what made America give it up. different – ​​that we’re still a good people, and there’s still a lot of optimism in America,” he said in an interview.

Mr. Ramaswamy used every opportunity during the debate to mock the incrementalism and governing results of his opponents.

Instead, he promised a “revolution.” He doubled down on his outlandish promises to shut down a host of government agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Education. He deployed personal Trumpian slurs against his opponents – accusing all of his opponents of being “bought and paid for”, claiming that Nikki Haley was seeking lucrative jobs with defense contractors and suggesting that Chris Christie was looking for a job on the liberal cable news network MSNBC. .

And, in a moment that visibly enraged many of his opponents, Mr Ramaswamy, in full Tucker Carlson fashion, ridiculed the idea that Republicans should support Ukraine.

“I find it offensive that we have professional politicians on stage who will make a pilgrimage to their pope, Zelensky, without doing the same for the people of Maui or South Chicago,” he said.

The Milwaukee audience cheered as Mr. Pence and Ms. Haley attacked Mr. Ramaswamy for giving in to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. But outside the arena, the party is moving away from the old guard. The two main candidates in the race, Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis, are skeptical of support for Ukraine. And Mr. Trump, the overwhelming favorite, has offered to cede swaths of Ukraine to Mr. Putin.

This foreign policy struggle reveals the starkest difference between the Republican Party Mr. Pence belatedly tries to preserve and the one Mr. Trump ushered in.

Mr Ramaswamy said if elected he would cut off all US funding to help Ukraine fight Russia. “I have a news flash,” he told Mr. Pence. “The USSR no longer exists. He backed off in 1990.”

The last time a presidential candidate held such a line during a debate was in 2012, when then-President Obama mocked his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, for nominating Russia as America’s greatest geopolitical threat. “The 1980s now call for a rollback in their foreign policy,” Mr. Obama said.

As Mr Pence backed away from Mr Ramaswamy’s line, leaders of the party’s increasingly emboldened anti-interventionist wing rejoiced.

“The divide within the Republican Party on foreign policy is not between so-called isolationists or interventionists, but between those who still want to pretend it’s 1983 and those who recognize that America exists in a world much different than 40 years ago,” said Dan Caldwell. , who directs the foreign policy program of the Center for Renewing America, a think tank with close ties to Mr. Trump.

“It is encouraging,” he added, “that the top three candidates in the Republican presidential primaries widely recognize that the United States simply does not have the financial, military, or industrial capacity to do all that neocon dead ends want us to do. worldwide. »

Mr. Caldwell has another reason to feel comforted: it is his wing of the party that will likely take over the national security apparatus if Mr. Trump returns to power in 2025.


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