While previous debates discussed everything from UFOs to the price of Nikki Haley’s curtains, Wednesday night’s Republican presidential debate focused heavily on “gender mutilation” and extreme transgender ideology’s impact on children. Young women victimized by transgender surgeries called on candidates to enact stronger protections for minors, while one candidate called any failure to curtail underage transgender procedures “disqualifying.” Candidates also clashed harshly over the U.S.-backed war in Ukraine and their personal integrity.
Four of the five top presidential hopefuls gathered in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for the fourth GOP presidential debate and likely the last before the Iowa Caucus. In the often-contentious forum, broadcast on NewsNation, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis drew a sharp contrast with former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley over extreme gender ideology in his opening statement.
“I [signed] a bill in Florida to stop the gender mutilation of minors. It’s child abuse, and it’s wrong,” said DeSantis. Puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones “are irreversible. Talk to Chloe Cole. She went through this. Now she’s an adult; she’s warning against it. She may never be able to have kids again.” DeSantis stated that Nikki Haley “opposes that bill. She thinks it’s fine, and the law shouldn’t get involved with it.”
“If you’re not willing to stand up and say that it is wrong to mutilate these kids, you’re not going to fight for the people back home,” he said. “I will win for you.”
Haley initially deflected, referring to Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law as the “Don’t Say Gay bill,” a pejorative term used by LGBTQ activists. She then accused DeSantis of lying.
“I never said that,” she insisted.
“We have it on video,” retorted DeSantis.
In June, CBS anchor Tony Dokoupil asked Haley, “What should the law allow” a “12-year-old child in this country assigned female at birth [who] says, ‘actually I feel more comfortable living as a boy” to do? Haley responded, “I think the law should stay out of it, and I think parents should handle it.” But she added, “when that child becomes 18, if they want to make more of a permanent change, they can do that.” In May, she told ABC News, “You shouldn’t allow a child to have a gender-changing procedure till the age of 18 when they are an adult and they can make that decision.”
The issue came up later, as moderator and radio host Megyn Kelly asked former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie pointedly, “You do not favor a ban on trans medical treatments for minors, saying it’s a parental rights issue. The surgeries done on minors involve cutting off body parts at a time when these kids cannot even legally smoke a cigarette. Kids who go from puberty blockers to cross-sex hormones are at a much greater likelihood of winding up sterile.”
“How is it that you think a parent should be able to okay these surgeries, let alone the sterilization of a child, and aren’t you way too out of step on this issue to be the Republican nominee?” Kelly asked.
Christie presented his decision to allow children to undergo life-altering surgeries and hormone injections as a vindication of conservative values and parental rights.
“No, I’m not [out of touch], because Republicans believe in less government, not more,” Christie, currently registering around 3% support in the polls, replied.
“I trust parents,” Christie continued. “We should empower parents to be teaching the values that they believe in in their homes without the government telling them what those values should be — and yet we want to take other parental rights away.” Christie went on to attack conservative “jokers in Congress” who took three weeks to select a new Speaker of the House and Senator Tommy Tuberville for blocking mass military promotions over the Biden administration’s decision to fund abortion travel.
“As a parent, you do not have the right to abuse your kids. This is cutting off their genitals. This is mutilating these minors,” responded DeSantis to one of the night’s rare outbursts of thunderous applause.
DeSantis rightly noted that European nations, including trans-friendly Sweden, had pulled back their once-permissive policies allowing cross-sex hormone injections and other transgender procedures for minors. “These are irreversible procedures,” said DeSantis. “We cannot allow this to happen in this country.”
“If there’s one issue that’s disqualifying, it’s this one,” added Ramaswamy. He said the next president should threaten to withhold federal funds from states that do not ban “genital mutilation and chemical castration” before the age of 21.
The conservative candidates echoed the words of those bearing the scars of transgender operations and procedures. “?No one has the right to sterilize a child, even the child’s own parents,” said Prisha Mosley, a female detransitioner who once identified as a male. Chloe Cole weighed in, urging candidates to “stand up to child abuse” such as transgender surgeries. “This problem isn’t solved until we have a president and Congress that is willing to stand up to this mutilation.”
The candidates argued over their record on transgender legislation. Christie denied signing a 2017 bill that requires schools to teach transgender ideology and hide children’s gender transition from parents in the name of privacy. While Christie signed S. 3067, which requires public “schools to work with the student to create an appropriate confidentiality plan regarding the student’s transgender or transitioning status,” state guidelines hiding the transition from parents were drafted after he left office in January 2018.
Nikki Haley defended her opposition to a bathroom privacy law as governor of South Carolina by saying DeSantis opposed similar legislation. “Ten years ago when the bathroom situation came up, we had maybe a handful of kids that were dealing with an issue. And I said we don’t need to bring government into this.” (She once said she “strong-armed” legislators against the bill.) But “now, 10 years later, we see that this issue has exploded.”
She then accused DeSantis of sharing her view. “I signed a bathroom [privacy] bill in Florida, so that’s obviously not true,” retorted DeSantis. “You killed it; I signed it.”
In fact, DeSantis said in 2018 he “would not pass a law” on the issue, stating he would likely veto any legislation that crossed his desk. Yet he signed a bill in May establishing privacy in restrooms and other intimate facilities.
Liberals attempted to downplay the importance of the issue, with DNC Chair Jaime Harrison saying, “Tonight the GOP presidential candidates spent more time on the debate stage talking about bathrooms than” the alleged threat to democracy posed by Donald Trump. But conservatives said politicians needed to do more to prevent the physical and psychological harms caused by transgender procedures. “Sterilizing children when they are not even allowed to sign a contract is [a] tragedy,” said Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America.
The night’s most explosive exchange dealt with Ukraine, as Nikki Haley — who presents herself as a foreign policy expert — failed a pop quiz administered by Vivek Ramaswamy. “One thing that Joe Biden and Nikki Haley have in common is that neither of them could even state for you three provinces in eastern Ukraine that they want to send our troops to actually fight for,” said Ramaswamy.
Haley froze, staring forward blankly, before licking and twisting her dry lips.
“Look at that,” taunted Ramaswamy. “Look at the blank expression.”
With that, Chris Christie began a three-and-a-half-minute interruption in the form of a back-and-forth with Ramaswamy, calling the Ohio-based businessman “the most obnoxious blowhard in America.” During the exchange, Haley appeared to write something down, later blurting out: “Donetsk, Luhansk, and Crimea.” (Crimea is no longer part of Ukraine; Russia annexed the province, which has since been attacked by Ukraine, in 2014.)
Haley also got into hot water after denying that she ever said she proposed forcing Americans to make all internet comments publicly, under their own names. “[C]onservatives have been attacked, and they’ve lost jobs, and they’ve been canceled. You know the regime would use that to weaponize that against our own people,” said DeSantis.
Haley denied making such comments, despite making numerous statements to that effect. “The first thing I’m going to do is go to those social media companies. This is a national security threat. They need to verify every single person on their outlet. And I want it by name,” Haley said. “Then you’re going to get some civility when people know their name is next to what they say. And they know their pastor and their family member’s [are] going to see it,” she added. After receiving massive pushback, Haley walked back her comments, saying she only intended to verify foreign-based users, not U.S. citizens.
“We’re marching towards fascism under Biden. Jack Smith has subpoenaed every last retweet that someone has issued from Donald Trump in the year 2020,” said Ramaswamy. “The only person more fascist than the Biden regime right now is Nikki Haley, who thinks the government should identify every one of those individuals with an ID. That is not freedom; that is fascism, and she should come nowhere near the levers of power.”
DeSantis and Ramaswamy drew attention to Haley’s newfound support among liberal donors such as Larry Fink of BlackRock and Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase.
“I love all the attention, fellas,” Haley demurred.
Moderators Kelly, NewsNation anchor Elizabeth Vargas, and Eliana Johnson of the Washington Free Beacon, posed no questions about abortion, and the only questions about immigration focused on alleged inconsistencies or problems with the candidates’ positions. Nikki Haley voiced her opposition to an alleged “Muslim ban” supposedly embraced by President Donald Trump. “I don’t think that you have a straight-up Muslim ban,” said Haley, who entertained the prospect of admitting “refugees” from Iran and the Gaza Strip to the United States. “It’s not about a religion; it’s about a fact that certain countries are dangerous and are a threat to us.”
DeSantis highlighted the role of culture in immigration. “Look what’s happened in Europe,” he said, “because they imported mass numbers of people who reject their culture. Europe is committing suicide with the mass migration, and it’s illegal and legal.”
“I said no, we’re not taking anyone from Gaza because of the anti-Semitism and because they reject American culture,” DeSantis said.
Religion also entered the discussion when Eliana Johnson asked Ramaswamy, “Are you questioning Nikki Haley’s Christian convictions?” (“I don’t question her faith, but I question her authenticity,” Ramaswamy responded.)
Haley noted her opposition to anti-Semitism in a dubious-sounding statistic about social media. “We really do need to ban TikTok once and for all, and let me tell you why: For every 30 minutes that someone watches TikTok, every day, they become 17% more anti-Semitic, more pro-Hamas based on doing that,” she said. The comments stood out, as most candidates, including Haley, had based their view that TikTok should be banned based on its potential exploitation as a spying goldmine for the Chinese Communist Party, not the way it would impact Americans’ view of Israel. The assertion itself is contested: Although a study found something akin to Haley’s comments — researcher Anthony Goldbloom says he found those who view 30 minutes of TikTok daily were 17% more likely to hold anti-Semitic or anti-Israeli views — experts question its results and methodology.
The debate featured perhaps the first discussion of Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration’s program to develop a COVID-19 vaccination.
The two-hour-long debate in Tuscaloosa may have been the most personally offensive (although Haley called Ramaswamy “scum” at the last outing). At one point, Ramaswamy held up a handwritten statement reading, “Nikki = Corrupt.” A little over one hour into the two-hour debate, Christie and DeSantis talked over each other for 33 seconds straight. Christie also referred to Donald Trump as “Voldemort” before calling Trump “a dictator, a bully,” and “unfit to be president.”
Yet Trump’s absence has overshadowed all four debates. Just hours before Wednesday night’s showdown, Senator Katie Britt (R-Ala.) endorsed Trump, giving the 45th president the backing of the state’s full Republican congressional delegation.
Wednesday’s debate came just 40 days before the Iowa Caucus, which take place next January 15. Trump maintains a 24-point lead over his nearest rival, DeSantis, among Iowa voters, according to a poll from the Trafalgar Group released this week. Trump also enjoys a 31-point lead in New Hampshire.
SOURCE: THE WASHINGTON STAND
Ben Johnson is senior reporter and editor at The Washington Stand