For those solely interested in the horse race angle of the Republican presidential race, it’s not clear that anything said at last night’s debate held in Milwaukee and broadcast on Fox Business Channel will dramatically alter the direction of the race. But for once, the debate audience got a good idea not only of the candidates’ positions but also about the issues that are dividing the party. On foreign policy, immigration, entitlements, and the prospect of bank bailouts, we heard substantial disagreements, not merely personal attacks and point-scoring. But the question this leaves us asking is what impact, if any, will the exposure of these differences and the inability of the two frontrunners to delve as deeply into policy discussions as the others have on the outcome of the race? And at the moment, until proven otherwise the answer to that question is probably not much.
Principal credit for keeping the discussion fixed on genuine policy differences belongs to the Fox Business Channel moderators who asked serious questions and follow-ups. That meant there were none of the personal attacks that characterized past debates. Ben Carson was given an opportunity to address charges about his biography but after he made a scripted response dismissing the accusations, none of his opponents chose to chime in. Also of note was the fact that Jeb Bush did not attack Marco Rubio as he tried — and failed to do effectively — in the last debate. Given that his campaign has been discussing spending $20 million trashing his former friend that appeared to be an indication that Bush understands that sniping at a politician who is clearly better at give and take is a losing proposition.
That meant most of the hours on the stage were taken up with the task of exploring where the candidates stand.
On immigration, the divide was between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, who took a hard line on illegals, and John Kasich and Jeb Bush, who derided the notion that 11 million could or would be deported.
On taxes, there was some consensus but not on entitlement spending. It was Trump and, principally, Kasich who played the outliers who were less concerned about reforming the system than in demonstrating compassion to those counting on the money.
In one of the evening’s most fiery moments, clear differences were articulated about the prospect of another bank bailout between Kasich and Cruz. Cruz was, as he has been during his time in the Senate, the tribune of the Tea Party demanding accountability from financial institutions and showing he was willing to let institutions fail rather than to compromise financial principles. Kasich derided Cruz’s devotion to ideology while declaring that an executive fixes problems. But his promise to safeguard bank investors seemed to mark him as not so much the champion of the establishment as of one of the most unpopular positions imaginable in a conservative party.
Foreign policy also showed a clear divide between those like Rand Paul and Trump, who want to stay out of the conflict in Syria at all costs, and others like Rubio and Carly Fiorina, who spoke of the need to safeguard U.S. security through strong leadership.
As was evident in previous debates, the two outsider frontrunners — Trump and Ben Carson — seemed at sea whenever they were required to do more than speak in generalities. In particular, Carson seemed at sea when discussing financial issues or foreign policy. Yet Carson also demonstrated his trademark ability to speak to the voters’ need for a calm yet inspiring conservative voice in the opening and closing segments of the debate.
Trump seems to have figured out that debates don’t serve his particular talents well and seemed more subdued than in the past. Indeed, he even played the frontrunner at times, at one point saying that all of the Republicans would be better than Hillary Clinton, their likely Democratic opponent next year.
The two rising stars gaining ground behind them — Rubio and Cruz — continued to excel as both had great nights. Cruz had a high point when he expressed indignation about opponents of illegal immigration being called racists. Rubio had a number of strong moments, demonstrating his ability to render complex issues simple on a wide range of issues like the minimum wage and especially on foreign policy where he took down Paul with a classic line about the connection between the economy and safeguarding national security.
Fiorina may have given herself another boost with an equally strong debate. Bush managed to look better than in the previous debates, but probably not enough to reverse his decline. Paul finally seemed to get a word in edgewise in a debate but found himself on the losing end of an exchange with Rubio, making it unlikely that he will get himself out of the low single digits in the polls.
The evening’s biggest loser was Kasich. His over-the-top performance mixed outlier stands on the issues (pro-bailout, amnesty for illegals, and lukewarm on entitlement reform) with an obnoxious manner seemed to mark him as the most likely candidate to be voted off the island for the next debate a month from now. If Kasich were to be replaced by a candidate in the undercard debate, it would probably be Chris Christie, who stayed on message attacking Clinton even as Bobby Jindal kept trying to label him as RINO.
We don’t know how much the standings in the polls will change in the weeks until the next GOP debate on December 14. Establishment Republicans have been waiting for Trump and/or Carson to collapse, but there is no evidence that this is going to happen. Nor can we be sure that Rubio and Cruz will continue their ascent into what might be a quartet at the top with the rest of the field languishing in low single digits.
But the Fox Business Channel debate has set a standard of seriousness that future hosts ought to emulate. Republicans now can’t say they don’t have clear choices, especially with respect to foreign policy and immigration. If substance continues to prevail, that ought to continue to help Rubio, Cruz and Fiorina the most and hurt Trump and Carson. But if there is anything we have learned in the last six months it is that it is a mistake to make such assumptions about this year of political outsiders. As we move closer to the moment when the voters, rather than the pollsters and the networks start making the decision, we’ll soon discover whether the frontrunners’ generalities will be enough to stand up to the specifics we began to hear on Tuesday night from the rest of the field.