“Economic Populism” Was Nowhere to Be Found at the GOP Debate

We keep being told the GOP has become a working-class party that rejects neoliberal economics. Someone should’ve told the Republican candidates at last night’s debate.

Vivek Ramaswamy, Ron DeSantis, Mike Pence, and Chris Christie during a break at the Republican primary presidential debate hosted by Fox News in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, US, on August 23, 2023. (Al Drago / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Remember how the Republican Party is meant to be a “working-class party” that has rejected neoliberal economics? It’s a claim plastered all over the GOP’s branding since the 2020 elections. Well, apparently the Republican candidates themselves forgot, since the new working class–focused, economically populist mood we keep being told has taken over the GOP was nowhere to be found at last night’s Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee.

Candidates recited more or less what you’d expect from Republican politicians on every other issue, like that climate change is no big deal, progressive prosecutors are making crime out of control, and that abortion should basically be impossible. Economic policy saw no surprises, either.

America “cannot succeed when the Congress spends trillions and trillions of dollars,” Florida governor Ron DeSantis thundered. “We cannot sit by any longer and allow the kind of spending that’s going on in Washington,” said former New Jersey governor and Donald Trump whipping boy Chris Christie, shortly after boasting about cutting taxes and debt as governor. Tea Party darling and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley attacked Republicans and the Donald Trump administration in particular as wild spendthrifts that “added $8 trillion to our debt,” even at one point comparing Democrats favorably to the GOP in terms of keeping a lid on earmarks. “I think it’s time for an accountant in the White House,” she concluded.

“I was the first person in this race to say we’ve got to deal with the long-term national debt issues,” said Mike Pence as if such a promise were novel, pledging to “restore fiscal responsibility” and complaining that “you’ve got people on this stage who won’t even talk about issues like Social Security and Medicare,” a not-so-subtle nod to the former vice president’s pledge to cut those entitlement programs. This was in response to a question that started out mentioning the rising cost of groceries, by the way.

Trump’s gargantuan 2017 tax cut for the rich featured prominently in the debate, but not as a focus of attack for letting the richest of the rich pay lower rates than working-class Americans and eventually hiking rates for lower- and middle-income earners. Instead, candidates fell over each other to attach themselves to that legislative love letter to plutocrats (whose December 22, 2017 signing, incidentally, coincided with maybe the worst period for Trump’s approval rating), as when South Carolina senator Tim Scott took credit for the law — and deservedly so — and Pence brought it up in response to, of all things, a question about crime in US cities.

“When I’m president of the United States, we’re actually gonna cut taxes further, we’re gonna extend those tax cuts,” Pence vowed, before throwing in a promise to “close the federal Department of Education” for good measure.

Pence was actually one of four candidates on the stage who pledged to eliminate this department, or, as billionaire Vivek Ramaswamy put it, to “shut down the head of the snake.” This wasn’t just about shrinking government — it was also about, in Scott’s words, “break[ing] the backs of the teachers’ unions,” whom Christie called “the biggest threat to our country.”

Pence also wasn’t the only one who — at a time when all kinds of vital government support have vanished and left Americans to fend for themselves in the face of mounting costs — was taking aim at the size of government. Haley complained that Trump had “left us with ninety million people on Medicaid” and “forty-two million people on food stamps” by signing the CARES Act in March 2020. Former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson bragged about slashing his state’s government employee rolls by 14 percent, before affirming that as president, “we need someone who can actually constrain the growth of federal government, that can actually reduce the size — and I’ve pledged to reduce by 10 percent our federal, nondefense workforce.”

Take note of that “nondefense” clause Hutchinson slipped in there, because every candidate on that stage made clear that — what’s new? — this neoliberal deficit hawkery and opposition to “big government” didn’t apply to the mammoth and wasteful US military. Instead, candidates pledged to get more militarily aggressive against a variety of foreign adversaries, whether Russia, China, or Mexican drug cartels across the border — or all three.

So let’s go over what the Republican candidates were pledging to do as president in 2023: slash spending, gut entitlements, shrink government, bust unions, and cut taxes for the rich — all while maintaining current funding for the cartoonishly large US military.

What exactly is meant to be new or different about any of this? This is the same thing Republican politicians have been saying on economics since the Ronald Reagan years. Even more absurdly, they’re doing it despite polling that shows that ordinary GOP voters have shifted markedly on issues like protecting entitlements and US imperial adventurism abroad since that era. If this was a collection of Democrats making the identical case, they’d be quickly and correctly denounced as neoliberal sellouts and corporate shills.

It would be marginally better if the Republican establishment kept its ugly, socially reactionary values while at the very least rejecting its neoliberal economics and war-hungry foreign policy. But despite GOP politicians and the pundits aligned with them insisting that this really is happening, there was no sign of it on the debate stage. This is still the same old Republican Party of Mitt Romney and George W. Bush.