Republicans Show Stunning Ignorance of China in South Carolina Debate

The Republican debate in South Carolina showed an astonishing ignorance of Beijing. Michelle Goldberg on the new lows in demagoguery. Plus, more Daily Beast contributors weigh in.

Paul J. Richards / AFP-Getty Images

At 9:30 last night, when the CBS/National Journal debate about foreign policy came to an end, Rick Perry must have been deeply relieved. After his disastrous performance on Wednesday, he pulled off his best debate performance by far on Saturday, completely avoiding newsmaking gaffes.

Of course, that’s not saying much, and it certainly doesn’t mean that Perry sounded smart. “The communist Chinese government will end up on the ash heap of history if they do not change their virtues,” he said, arguing, senselessly, that China, with its thriving economy and vibrant manufacturing sector, is about to go the way of the USSR at the close of the Cold War.

Michele Bachmann, by contrast, presented China as a model capitalist society, attributing its growth to its lack of an enervating American-style social safety net. “If you look at China,” she said, “they don’t have food stamps” or Aid to Families With Dependent Children. Yes, the pro-life absolutist who constantly touts her experience “raising” 23 foster children lauded the world capital of forced abortion for not giving welfare to poor mothers. (The Republican audience, usually so quick to voice its displeasure, didn’t boo.)

But Perry’s threat to eliminate foreign aid to Pakistan was daft enough that even Bachmann sounded reasonable in response, as did Rick Santorum. Both pointed out that jettisoning our uneasy alliance with the nuclear-armed nation isn’t an option, and that we provide aid out of concern with national security, not soft-hearted humanitarianism. “We all know the aid relationship, when it comes to military aid, is spent in the United States, so it's not giving money away,” said Santorum. “It’s sending military hardware, which creates jobs in this country, to those countries, creating nexuses and relationships and dependency on our weapons systems.” In a night full of demagoguery, it was a bracing moment of realism.

But if realism interested the Republican primary electorate, Jon Huntsman would be the frontrunner. Perry’s nationalist bluster, his gratuitous China bashing, embrace of waterboarding and attacks on foreign aid (which consumes a whopping 1 percent of the U.S. budget) seem precisely attuned to the mood of the GOP base. If he’d learned to repeat his talking points so effectively a few weeks ago, he’d be in the lead right now.