Almost all of the stories about last night’s GOP presidential debate focus on the bombastic spectacle of candidate’s squaring off against one another.
Donald Trump jabbed Sen. Rand Paul for being on the stage despite his poll numbers. Paul jabbed back, wondering whether Trump is mature enough to be trusted with the nuclear launch codes. Trump jabbed Carly Fiorina’s business record. Fiorina jabbed back, sharply rebuking his prior comments about her appearance and wondering whether he’s fit to manage the country’s economy given that he’s declared bankruptcy four times. Trump jabbed Gov. Jeb Bush for his brother’s legacy in Iraq. Bush jabbed back, accusing Trump of giving him campaign contributions in an attempt to buy favor for casino gambling in Florida.
Unfortunately, it’s tough to do much else when it’s clear that the debate’s moderators clearly confused their role with that of instigators. Nearly every question was aimed not at teasing out a policy position, but instead was clearly directed at creating onstage friction. Take, for instance, CNN’s Jake Tapper, who began the debate asking other candidates whether they were comfortable with Trump’s finger on the nuclear codes, he then asked Bush whether he believed Trump to be a serious candidate, and then goaded Sen. Paul to respond to a percetived attack by Trump.
“Listen, you know, if I were sitting at home and watching this back and forth, I would be included to turn it off,” a fed up Gov. John Kasich said. “I mean, people at home want to know across this country, they want to know what we’re going to do to fix this place, how we’ll balance a budget, how we’re going to create more economic growth, how we’ll pay down the debt. What we’re going to do to strengthen the military.”
“Now, I know that it may be buzzing out there, but I think it’s important we get to the issues,” he concluded, clearly exasperated.
Amen. Fortunately, the chastened moderators did finally allow for some serious policy discussion, and that was when the depth and quality of the Republican field finally came to the fore.
Rubio got to flash his foreign policy chops, discussing how the Russians are positioning themselves to become the “single most important power broker” in the Middle East, the risk of chemical weapons falling into the hands of terrorists if Syria isn’t properly handled, and the insanity of allowing a regime that chants “death to America” to inspect their own facilities.
Fiorina projected strength across the board, speaking deftly on issues as disparate as relations with Vladimir Putin, how to add teeth to the Iran agreement, a strategy for fighting the Islamic State, and a defense of her time as CEO of Hewlett Packard.
Paul was able to frame himself as the noninterventionist Republican, someone who expresses the “need to think before we act” because we can’t always be “the world’s patsies” who “fight their wars” rather than “defend American interests.”
Kasich was able to stress the need for a middle path, highlighted by his calls for “unity” on foreign policy, his unwillingness to shut down the government (even if it means not being able to defund Planned Parenthood), and his plan for economic growth, which includes investing in education.
Walker highlighted his record in Wisconsin, closing a budget deficit, dramatically reducing taxes, and defunding Planned Parenthood.
Bush was finally allowed the chance to explain his stance on immigration, characterized as the “hopeful, optimistic approach, the approach that says that, you come to our country legally, you pursue your dreams with a vengeance, you create opportunities for us all.”
Christie was able to put more meat on the bones of his plan to reform government spending on entitlement programs, which have gone from 26 percent of all federal spending when John Kennedy was president to 71 percent of spending today.
Cruz got the chance to take several shots at Iran and the problems with President Obama’s nuclear deal–namely, that it would send hundreds of billions of dollars to Ayatollah Khamanei.
Carson got to flash his policy credentials by extolling the economic benefits of the flat tax, which he would temper by increasing and indexing the minimum wage.
And Trump was given the chance to be his usual punchy self, nimbly playing off of others’ answers to express a surprisingly moderate stance.
So while the pundits and political class will inevitably spend days fulminating about whether Trump won or lost the debate and endlessly arguing over which candidates had a top-notch put down, the real story of this debate was that the candidates finally got to talk about their ideas. And hopefully, through that conversation, America got to see a surprisingly diverse set of views being offered up by a deep, impressive pool of candidates.
Photo by Screenshot/CNN