Last night’s GOP presidential debate on Fox Business Channel had a different flavor from previous debates. The sparring between the candidates was not focused on silly issues or style. Instead, on both immigration and foreign policy, real differences emerged on stage and, to a lesser degree, different approaches to the economy as well.
The most lively exchange highlighted the largest fault line in the GOP today. Both Gov. John Kasich and former Gov. Jeb Bush pointed out that Donald Trump’s announced plan to deport 11 million undocumented Americans was a ridiculous proposal on its face. Kasich gets credit for being the first to call out Trump, but Bush got the better of the exchange. After noting that the Clinton campaign staffers were likely giving each other high fives watching the Republicans discuss deportation (and they were!), he shifted to values, pointing out that mass deportation would disrupt families and communities. I was hoping the moderators would go to Sen. Marco Rubio at this point. Rubio has argued forcefully for changing our immigration laws to give preference to those who can contribute economically, rather than emphasize family unification, which seems an odd argument to make for someone who touts his pro-family credentials.
Sen. Ted Cruz, who had the best night again, joined the fray. “If Republicans join Democrats as the party of amnesty,” he thundered, “we will lose.” He went on to note that he denied the charge that he is “anti-immigrant,” said the charge was offensive, and pointed to the fact that “I am the son of an immigrant who came legally from Cuba to seek the American Dream.” Latinos will notice the redundancy in that last sentence. Cubans get preferential treatment under the immigration laws. If they come here, it is always legal. They touch US soil, and they get documents. Mexicans, Vietnamese, Guatemalans, Poles, etc., must have been cursing their elders for lacking the foresight to have been born in Cuba.
Of course, the so-called moderates like Kasich and Bush do not advocate a path to citizenship for those who are undocumented, only a path to legal status. The mark of moderation in the GOP today is that you can sleep well at night with the idea of 11 million second class Americans.
The other lively exchange came between Rubio and Sen. Rand Paul. Rubio said he supported tax credits for childcare. Paul asked if the transfer of wealth such a program entailed is a genuinely conservative policy, noting correctly that such a tax credit would cost billions of dollars. But, then Paul made a misstep. He also noted that Rubio is calling for an additional one trillion dollars in spending on the military. Rubio ignored the issue of childcare spending, a vulnerability in a GOP primary, and only answered the military spending issue, and he had his strongest moment in the night. Rubio said the fight against ISIS is not only about strategic values but about national values: “They hate us because we educate girls. They hate us because our women drive cars.” I am surprised that more GOP hawks do not make this values argument, which is neo-conservatism’s best argument.
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The rest of the debate about ISIS was full of hot air and bluster, but no one on the stage had any more of a strategy for defeating ISIS than does President Obama. The dirty secret is that it is very easy for America to make the situation in the Mideast worse, and far from clear how we can make it better. There is a civil war going on within the world of Islam and that war will take a generation to sort itself out. The best that can be said now, and it is an admittedly horrible thing to say, is that now they are killing each other and not exporting their civil war.
Trump scored his best moment in the debate on this issue after several others pointed to Russia’s involvement in Syria as evidence of Obama’s weakness. Trump asked: Why not let Putin take a whack at ISIS? This is the kind of observation that drives policymakers and analysts crazy but probably has a very different effect on the average voter. I suspect most Americans would welcome the prospect of someone other than the U.S. leading the charge. The GOP faces a problem. Their candidates are happy to mouth hawkish talking points but the American people are not feeling very hawkish. At one point, Sen. Paul invoked Ronald Reagan, who sent troops to the island nation of Grenada, but otherwise kept U.S. troops doing military exercises. Carly Fiorina, who had a bad night overall, said, “Reagan walked away at Reykjavik” which is true, but made the point. When Reagan was peeved, he stopped negotiations, he did not commit American troops on the ground.
At one point Sen. Paul mentioned “the right to filibuster.” The next time he talks about being a strict constitutionalist, someone should ask him where in the Constitution this right can be found. Conversely, when discussing taxes, Paul advocated a policy that happens to be crazy, but he did so with fluency and specificity. His crispness contrasted sharply with the dazed incoherence of Dr. Ben Carson, who was the debate’s clear loser. When it was done, GOP strategist Steve Schmidt called Carson’s answers “total absolute gibberish.” The incoherent words, combined with the deer in the headlights presentation, should begin the implosion of Dr. Carson’s campaign but in this zany season, who knows?
Bush had a better outing last night than in previous times, but he still lacks verbal discipline. He spoke about being in Washington, Iowa, and tried to make a joke about the contrast between the small town and the more famous Washington on the Potomac, but he never got the joke out. It was bizarre. Still, he showed more passion in giving his answers, his policy expertise was evident, and he does about as good a job as Cruz of linking policy-talk with values-talk. The problem for Bush is that his patrician values are not consistent with the hateful, angry GOP base.
Again, pundits say Rubio had a great night and I suppose by comparison he did. Still, I see in my notes from that night this observation: “Rubio. ‘New American Century.’ More bumper sticker talk. But does it work?” Rubio constantly returns to his campaign themes, and those themes are forward looking and designed to contrast his youthful hopefulness with both Bush and Clinton, whose very names conjure up the past. But, it is all fluff. When and if the GOP debate stage ever gets down to two or even three candidates, I would love to do debate prep with one of the other candidates, to push Rubio past his platitudes.
Conclusion: Bush stays alive but no bounce from last night. Fiorina will be at the kiddie table next time. Kasich and Paul are both running on borrowed time. If Carson begins to drop in the polls, Cruz is best positioned to garner his supporters. Rubio has already benefited from Bush’s sinking poll numbers. But, more people support Carson now than Bush, a lot more, and I suspect Cruz will emerge in the coming weeks as the man to beat. The Trump wild card remains wild. No idea how his campaign will play out. But, if I were a betting man, I would be putting my money on Cruz.