With voting still months away, the most important part of the first Republican presidential debate might have been the dispute between former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.
Haley and Ramaswamy occupy opposite poles of the GOP on issues like foreign policy — and how much the party has been permanently reshaped by former President Donald Trump or will revert to its pre-Trump form whenever he passes from the scene.
Ramaswamy described it as “disastrous” that “we are protecting against an invasion across somebody else’s border when we should use those same military resources to prevent … the invasion of our own southern border here in the United States of America.”
“We are driving Russia further into China’s hands, Ramaswamy continued. “The Russia-China alliance is the single greatest threat we face.”
The newcomer to the debate stage concluded with a catchphrase with a long political pedigree, but most recently associated with Trump. “I think that we have to put the interests of Americans first,” Ramaswamy said. “Secure our own border instead of somebody else’s. And the reality is this is also how we project strength and making America strong at home.”
Haley wasn’t the first candidate on the stage to push back against Ramaswamy — former Vice President Mike Pence and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie both struck first — but Haley may have drawn the sharpest contrast.
“First of all, the American president needs to have moral clarity. They need to know the difference between right and wrong,” Haley said. “They need to know the difference between good and evil. When you look at the situation with Russia and Ukraine, here you have a pro-American country that was invaded by a thug.”
Haley defended more aid to Ukraine as advancing American interests.
“So when you want to talk about what has been given to Ukraine, less than 3.5% of our defense budget has been given to Ukraine,” she said. “If you look at the percentages per GDP, 11 of the European countries have given more than the U.S.” (The United States spends considerably more on defense.)
The two sparred more about Russian President Vladimir Putin and China before Haley said, “You have no foreign policy experience and it shows.”
Experience with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was partly what some GOP voters hoped to correct when they nominated Trump, who had similarly testy exchanges with the likes of Jeb Bush on these issues at a debate on the eve of winning Haley’s South Carolina.
Haley speaks often of a generational change in Republican leadership. She is 51 and was elected South Carolina governor before her 40th birthday, while Trump at 77 is old enough to take one of her proposed competency tests.
Ramaswamy is 38. But while he leans into recent Trumpian innovations on the GOP brand, Haley in many ways is a callback to George W. Bush and tries to root her conservatism even further back in Ronald Reagan. She quoted Margaret Thatcher on Wednesday night. Her 2020 Republican National Convention speech liberally paraphrased Jeane Kirkpatrick, Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations.
Pence and Christie joined Haley in defending this vision of the GOP. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), the runner-up for the nomination in the vast majority of polls, is closer to Trump and Ramaswamy but more cautiously so on foreign policy.
“As president of the United States, your first obligation is to defend our country and its people,” DeSantis said. “And that means you’re sending all this money, but you’re not doing what we need to do to secure our own border.”
“We can do both at the same time,” Haley interjected. “And we can do both at the same time.”
Ramaswamy has come under fire for flip-flopping on Trump and many issues, while Haley and Pence both have better resumes for the White House because of jobs they received from the former president.
But Ramaswamy seeks continuity with Trump to the point where he is often dismissed as the Republican front-runner’s wingman, while Pence and Haley often criticize and suggest a need to move on from their old boss.
The businessman is a representative of the new populist Right that is questioning whether all the policies and rhetoric that whipped stagflation and won the Cold War still apply to today’s economy, culture war, and a rising China that was not liberalized by globalization during the 1990s.
Other prominent voices from this perspective include Tucker Carlson, the former Fox News host on whose show Trump appeared rather than participate in the debate, and Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH). The Heritage Foundation took steps in this direction with an ad hitting Ukraine aid during the debate preshow.
The GOP coalition is also changing. Republican voters are now more blue-collar and working-class than in the past. The party has strained relations with its business wing. West Virginia has gone from one of the bluest states in the country dating back to the New Deal to arguably the reddest, voting twice for Trump by 40 points.
To these conservatives, it’s no longer “morning in America.”
“We’re in the middle of a national identity crisis,” Ramaswamy said, adding that “the reason we have that mental health epidemic is that people are so hungry for purpose and meaning, at a time when family, faith, patriotism, hard work have all disappeared.”
“Our country is in decline,” DeSantis said. “This decline is not inevitable. It’s a choice. We need to send Joe Biden back to his basement and reverse American decline.”
Then there was Trump’s first inaugural address, often described as the “American Carnage” speech.
“We’ve defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own,” he said in 2017. “And spent trillions and trillions of dollars overseas, while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay. We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength and confidence of our country has dissipated over the horizon.”
Some Trump allies believe he didn’t do enough to break with past Republican administrations, governing the next two years in partnership with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and then-House Speaker Paul Ryan.
That partnership is now conclusively over. Former deputies Pence and Haley are running against him. And the next two highest polling candidates below the former president in the RealClearPolitics national average, DeSantis and Ramaswamy, are running more as Trump Republicans than they are.
Trump’s populist rebranding of the GOP is on the ballot next year as much as he is.