Improbably, the best moment of the Republican debates so far came during a wonky discussion of tax policy.
It occurred as the GOP candidates debated in Milwaukee Tuesday night. The magical exchange kicked off with a question to Ben Carson about his tax plan, which he’s said is based on Biblical tithing. Carson’s answer was revealing: He made clear that he’d eliminate all tax credits, including the earned-income tax credit and the home-mortgage-interest deduction, a significantly regressive change. Then Rand Paul and Ted Cruz both got tough questions about their tax plans, which are projected to create enormous revenue shortfalls. When neither man explained how they’d fill that hole in the deficit, moderator Maria Bartiromo pushed them on it. (Not that they offered much of an answer.)
Next, the moderators turned to Marco Rubio, asking him to defend his costly proposal for a child tax-credit increase. Paul jumped in, asking Rubio how he could call himself a conservative when he would create a new entitlement and increase defense spending. Soon Cruz jumped in, agreeing with Rubio that defense spending was important. Then Carly Fiorina piped up, making a plea for zero-based budgeting.
It was a great moment—great as politics, and great as entertainment. The candidates were engaged in substantive debates about their respective ideas for the economy. The moderators sparked the conversation but mostly had the good sense to stay out things once the discussion had begun rolling. And the candidates were confronting each other directly—but on questions of policy, rather than picking on each other over picayune matters. If debates are intended to give voters a sense of the candidates’ positions and personalities, those few minutes were as good as it gets.
That’s a win for Fox Business, which had promised a more substantive debate than CNBC’s widely maligned debacle last month—though it also produced some dry passages. But who cares about the relative successes of different networks? That’s all just a sideshow. Let’s get down to the policy.
A series of tough questions placed the candidates back on their heels. The questions about taxes were the most revealing. Nearly every candidate defended his or her tax plan on the basis of “fairness,” effectively appropriating a progressive buzzword. Yet no candidate was able to provide a satisfying answer about how he or she would plug the large hole they’d blow in the federal budget by sharply reducing government revenues with tax cuts. Most didn’t even try.
The candidates also squared off over how to handle illegal immigration, with Jeb Bush and John Kasich forming a moderate alliance, arguing that deporting the 11 million unauthorized immigrants already in the United States was simply unrealistic. They encountered resistance from Donald Trump—unsurprisingly—and from Ted Cruz, who scored one of the best lines of the night by positioning immigration as an economic issue. “The politics of it would be very different if a bunch of lawyers and bankers were crossing the Rio Grande, or if a bunch of people with journalism degrees were driving down the wages in the press,” he quipped—an especially pointed line given that his interlocutor was The Wall Street Journal’s British-born editor, Gerard Baker. (Rubio managed to stay out of the conversation, probably a wise choice.)
One revealing exchange concerned the candidates’ foreign-policy views, particularly on Syria and Iraq. Ben Carson drew the first question, about whether he backed President Obama’s decision to send a small contingent of special-operations forces to Syria, and badly fumbled it, delivering a rambling, incoherent answer with no obvious point. Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina’s answers were outwardly stronger, but both argued for no-fly zones that would create a strong risk of hostilities with Russia. Against them, Rand Paul and Donald Trump—between whom little love is lost—teamed up in a dovish duo. Trump, agreeing with some Obama administration officials, basically said to let Putin have Syria if he wanted it. Paul, who had been accused of isolationism earlier in the night, ridiculed his opponents’ vow not to speak with Vladimir Putin: “It’s naïve and foolish to say we’re not going to talk to Russia.”
Late in the night, Kasich and Cruz engaged in an intense mano-a-mano fight over bailing out banks. Cruz insisted he’d allow big banks to fail in an economic crisis. Kasich portrayed himself as a sober, informed executive—and said Cruz was taking too great a risk with depositors’ money. It’s likely the exchange helped both men with voters sympathetic to themselves. (This conversation also led to the remarkable accusation by Kasich, a former Lehman Brothers banker, that greed was rampant on Wall Street.)
Who won the debate? Unlike past debates, there wasn’t an obvious a winner. Marco Rubio likely won by default, since he entered the debate as the rising star and only helped himself, answering questions with poise and detail, and imbuing them with feeling. As several reporters noted on Twitter during the event, Rubio’s answers are often taken nearly verbatim from his stump speech, but most voters don’t know the speech well, so it doesn’t matter at this point. His deft turn when Paul accused him of phony conservatism, making his answer an emotional one about defending America, was vintage Rubio.
Carson offered a mixed performance. Asked about the many stories questioning his past over the last week, he pivoted quickly to an answer questioning Hillary Clinton’s record on Benghazi. For someone said to be a shaky politician, it was quite smooth. But his answer on Syria was not so well-crafted.
Surprisingly it was Ted Cruz, the famed debater, who delivered one of the notable gaffes of the night. Promising to name five federal departments he’d eliminate, he named only four—ticking off the Commerce Department twice, in an echo of fellow Texan Rick Perry’s infamous “oops” moment in 2012. Since Cruz has no reputation as a flake, however, it won’t likely be as damaging.
Paul remains a confusing performer—sometimes, as on Syria, very sharp and crisp; other times, as when he focuses on the Federal Reserve, a little more confusing. But he also landed one of the best blows of the night. After Trump mounted his soap box to complain about how China was robbing the U.S. blind in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Paul wryly turned to the moderators, drawling: “Hey, Gerard, we might want to point out China’s not a part of this deal.” That wasn’t Trump’s only bad moment of the night. Though Kasich interrupted constantly, Trump lashed out only when Fiorina did the same, unwise for a man already accused of misogyny.
Kasich himself was perhaps the standout star of the night. Unlike at the CNBC debate, where he came out guns blazing and then quickly faded, Kasich was able to dominate the clock, repeatedly jumping in and asserting himself. Forty minutes in, he was clearly dominating. But his eclectic and moderate stances still seem like a tough sell.
What about Carly Fiorina? Somehow, she hasn’t shown the same magic she did in the first two debates. Once again, she was polished on Tuesday. In several cases, though, she seemed unready to go off her talking points. The first question she faced asked why Democratic presidents have recently had better job creation than Republicans, and she didn’t answer it. She also offered an unsatisfying explanation for how she’d replace Obamacare.
And then, finally, there’s Jeb Bush. The one-time frontrunner has continued to struggle. (His chance to speak was even the subject of on-stage jokes—never a good sign.) He desperately needed a stronger performance—and he got it. The good news for Miami is that Bush was much better than he’s been in the previous debates. The bad news for Miami is that he still isn’t great. Bush continues to stick to his canard about delivering 4 percent growth. As the night went on, he seemed to lose steam, and increasingly delivered meandering, confusing answers; somehow, his discussion of the Middle East ended up with a line about the American economy. Late in the night, he was also forced by Baker to sheepishly back away from his guarantee that he could prevent a financial crisis. This debate may have slowed Bush’s tumble, and it might even be enough for his campaign to claim that he’s rounded the bend and is on the rebound. Still, if this is the new Jeb, the new Jeb still isn’t going to be able to win the Republican nomination. —David Graham
11:26 pm: What made this debate more effective was that while it began slowly with recitations of policy plans and talking points, the candidates ultimately engaged with each other in a substantive way without the moderators having to force them to lace into each other. The exchanges flared up naturally, and for the most part, they were both entertaining and informative about real differences in philosophy. —Russell Berman
11:23 pm: One of the successes of this debate was that the moderators managed to cover more economic topics than last time. The positions on taxes were heavily recycled from the last debate, but both wages and Wall Street finally cropped up. Interestingly, the question of whether or not candidates would let big banks fail proved an unnecessarily difficult one. It seems not all the GOP hopefuls quite understand how a bank failure would work. More specifically, that the FDIC insures bank accounts up to $250,000, so all of the seeming concern about what would happen to Americans’ hard earned money in the event of a failure was largely misplaced. —Gillian White
11:22 pm: All told, the candidates spent no time attacking a reasonably well-moderated debate, and although there were a few intra-candidate attacks, none seemed particularly notable. Marco Rubio was polished. Rand Paul played a bigger role than he has in previous debates. Donald Trump was relatively reserved. Ben Carson certainly helped himself with his performance. Carly Fiorina acquitted herself okay, too. I can't see this debate stopping Jeb Bush’s slide or doing anything significant for John Kasich. On foreign policy, the interventionism of the field as a whole is intense. On domestic policy, all have aired tax plans that have no chance of becoming law. The winner: Americans, because this debate lasted about two rather than three hours. —Conor Friedersdorf
Cruz was also strong. Like the last debate, he and Rubio are going to get the buzz out of this.
In a lot of ways this debate ratifies the status quo going in. No game-changers in that sense. Rand Paul showed up for the first time, but it’s not clear he has much of a constituency in this party. —Molly Ball
11:18 pm: At the start of the debate, I wondered whether Jeb Bush’s decision to hire a media trainer would show on the debate stage and it did, a little bit. Bush’s delivery seems to have improved, but maybe not enough to get him out of his low polling digits. Meanwhile, Marco Rubio again delivered a strong performance. What the two didn’t do is go head-to-head like they had in the last Republican debate. Maybe because doing so just wouldn’t work. It certainly didn’t for Bush then and it’s unlikely it would have for Rubio tonight. And it also may answer the question my colleague Russell Berman noted earlier: Will Bush leave his Super PAC to do the dirty work? Looks like that’s a strong possibility. —Priscilla Alvarez
11:16 pm: Trump: “I’m self-funding my campaign ... the United States can be better than ever before.” —Molly Ball
11:15 pm: Rubio: “The 21st century can be a new American century.” —Molly Ball
11:15 pm: Rubio, remembering why he’s here tonight, unlike some of his competitors: “I ask you for your vote.” —Marina Koren
11:14 pm: Cruz: “If we get back to the free-market principles and constitutional liberties that built this country, we can turn this nation around.” —Molly Ball
11:13 pm: In contrast, Spain needs a divider in chief to amicably part with the Catalonians and Basques. —Conor Friedersdorf
11:13 pm: Jeb: “I don't think we need an agitator in chief or a divider in chief, we need a commander in chief.” —Molly Ball
11:13 pm: Jeb Bush has brought along a Lenny Skutnik—he’s seated a military widow who fights for veterans in the audience, and refers to her in his closing statement. —Yoni Appelbaum
11:12 pm: Fiorina: “Carly Fiorina can beat Hillary Clinton.” —Molly Ball
11:11 pm: Rand: “I’m the only fiscal conservative on the stage.” —Molly Ball
11:09 pm: The impressive Carly Fiorina we saw in the second debate seems to be relying on the same talking point over and over again—her work as the CEO of Hewlett-Packard. I’d say she’s nearing her quota before voters start saying, “We know.” —Marina Koren
11:08 pm: Rand Paul seems to be at his most conventional when he’s talking about an “all-of-the-above” energy policy, which has been the standard talking point for nominees of both parties since George W. Bush was in office. —Russell Berman
11:07 pm: Rand, trying to find a middle ground on climate change, says, “While I do think man may have a role in our climate, I also think nature plays a role.” Does this mean humanity is not part of nature? If only we had philosophers to explore this metaphysical question... —Matt Ford
11:06 pm: “We also promised to get people home tonight,” says Cavuto. The studio audience, inexplicably, fails to cheer. —Yoni Appelbaum
11:03 pm: Trump awakens. The fourth debate has given us his most subdued performance yet. —Marina Koren
11:01 pm: Maria Baritromo’s question appears to be a free opportunity to recite talking points about the candidate's differences with Hillary Clinton. Rubio took it and ran with it. —Matt Ford
11:00 pm: Rubio probably has the best handle on the talking points that middle-class voters want to hear when it comes to economics. —Gillian White
10:59 pm: “That is a great question, and let me begin by answering it.” Rubio may be the best at buying himself time on stage without falling over his words or reminding the audience of his position as CEO. —Marina Koren
10:56 pm: This exchange between Kasich and Cruz is a fascinating debate about the extent to which presidents need to be nimble or loyal to principle when crises arise that challenge their ideological predispositions. This was precisely the situation the Bush administration faced in 2008 when it pushed for a bank bailout against its philosophical aversion to the potential for “moral hazard.” —Russell Berman
10:55 pm: Fiorina: “We must take our government back.” Unclear whether anyone kept the gift receipt. —Marina Koren
10:54 pm: John Kasich is wrong to assert that it is possible to run something without philosophy. Utilitarianism and flexibility are premised on philosophical priors too. —Conor Friedersdorf
10:53 pm: “Philosophy doesn't work when you run something,” John Kasich says, summing up his politics of pragmatism over Ted Cruz's insistence on a politics of principle. —Russell Berman
10:52 pm: This isn’t a tough question. Whether they’re lying or not, the right answer for a president is, “No, I will not bail out any financial institution,” even if that promise has to be broken. —Conor Friedersdorf
10:51 pm: Neil Cavuto presses Ted Cruz on whether he would let a major financial institution like Bank of America fail during a crisis. “Yes,” Cruz replies. —Matt Ford
10:50 pm: Ted Cruz: The Fed is “a series of philosopher kings.” Perhaps we should replace them with welder-kings? —Conor Friedersdorf
10:49 pm: A good reminder that the roots of the Tea Party actually came in reaction to the bank bailouts under George W. Bush, before Obama was even elected. —Molly Ball
10:48 pm: Neil Cavuto somehow finds an area of agreement between Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders. He asks Cruz if, as a former litigator, he would go after the Wall Street “crooks” that are guilty of “financial murder.” “Absolutely,” Cruz replies. —Russell Berman
10:47 pm: Cruz: “Would you bail out the big banks again? Nobody gave you an answer. I'll give you an answer. Absolutely not.” —Molly Ball
10:45 pm: Carson says monetary policies in play make it easy for big banks to run the financial system, but he doesn't provide any specifics on what regulations are problematic and are causing an “abnormal situation.” —Gillian White
10:43 pm: Jeb landed a strong conservative criticism of Hillary Clinton on Dodd-Frank by pointing to the toll it’s taken on community banks. But his inability to end his response on a strong note—he stuttered as he tried to wrap up—left a poor impression.—Tyler Bishop
10:42 pm: Bush is pressed on whether or not he can guarantee there won't be another financial crisis. He finally admits that he can't, but he says that capital requirements are key to preventing it. —Gillian White
10:40 pm: As an addendum to my last comment, Kasich's hope that King Abdullah of Jordan “will reign for a thousand years” will probably raise more eyebrows than poll numbers. —Matt Ford
10:39 pm: “Oh, look at the time, look at the time,” says Neil Cavuto, speaking for millions. This debate is much more bearable to watch than the CNBC one, but let's not forget we're on our fourth Republican debate and we're tired. —Marina Koren
10:38 pm: Kasich knows all the major players in world affairs, and he recites his approach country-by-country, eager to let voters to know that he knows them. You can't blame him for taking the opportunity, since as governor of Ohio, he has less of a chance to burnish his foreign-policy credentials than his senatorial rivals. —Russell Berman
10:37 pm: Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton has yet to win the nomination, but she’s the only Democrat that Republicans are targeting. The same thing occurred during the last debate. —Priscilla Alvarez
10:37 pm: Kasich was not going to stop speaking until he finished sharing his entire platform—or ran out of oxygen. —Gillian White
10:36 pm: As a frequent critic of the GOP's meddling, interventionist approach to foreign policy, even I am surprised to hear John Kasich announce his desire that Jordan's royal family reigns for the next 1,000 years. What unusual foresight he must imagine that he has! —Conor Friedersdorf
10:36 pm: John Kasich becomes the rare Republican candidate to praise President Obama, first for confronting the Chinese in the south China Sea, and ten for the Trans Pacific Partnership, which he also supports. —Russell Berman
10:34 pm: It also goes well with John McCain's frequent assertion that Russia is “a gas station masquerading as a country.” Republican senators sure have colorful descriptions for the Kremlin. —Marina Koren
10:33 pm: Rubio's assessment of Vladimir Putin as a “gangster” mirrors the U.S. embassy in Moscow's criticism of Russia as a ”mafia state” in the Wikileaks-released diplomatic cables to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. —Matt Ford
10:33 pm: Although ostensibly a debate on business and the economy, tonight's contest is giving Rand Paul more opportunities than ever before to highlight his differences with the other candidates on foreign policy. Weirdly, Donald Trump has both attacked him on that issue and is also the candidate closest to him in challenging the neocon heavy GOP establishment consensus. —Conor Friedersdorf
10:32 pm: Marco Rubio calls Putin a “gangster,” also emphasizing that he hasn’t met Putin like some of his rivals. —Priscilla Alvarez
10:31 pm: Rand Paul declares it naive to believe that the United States would stop talking to Russia. And he is of course correct. He also points out that his opponents are tempting war with Russia. —Conor Friedersdorf
10:31 pm: Donald Trump gets booed for going after Carly Fiorina's interruptions. “Why does she get to keep interrupting everybody?” he asks. “Terrible.” The crowd doesn't agree. —Russell Berman
10:30 pm: Rand Paul, alleged isolationist, is talking some common-sense about the Middle East: “I think it's naïve and foolish to say we’re not going to talk to Russia.” He also notes that establishing a no-fly zone could very easily lead to war with Russia. —David Graham
10:29 pm: Carly Fiorina is one of three candidates on the stage never to have held elective or appointive office. But unlike Carson or Trump, she’s clearly done her homework on foreign-policy issues. When pressed, she consistently rattles off well-rehearsed answers, cramming in details as if enough specifics can drown out any doubts about experience. And so far, it seems to be working for her. —Yoni Appelbaum
10:29 pm: Carly Fiorina brags that she has spoken to Vladimir Putin, “and not in a green room for a show, but in a meeting.” But in the same response she says she would not talk to him again “for a while” if she's elected president. —Russell Berman
10:28 pm: Jeb Bush, signatory to the Project for a New American Century, has an awful lot of chutzpah to accuse another candidate of treating geopolitics like a board game for urging a lesser American role in Syria. On this one, Donald Trump has a far stronger case--though naturally, he immediately starts talking nonsense about Libyan oil. —Conor Friedersdorf
10:27 pm: Donald Trump says that the Iraq War was a mistake, then says “we should have kept the oil” and given it to Americans who lost their limbs fighting in that war. —Matt Ford
10:25 pm: Republican candidates usually fall over themselves to say that they will “stand up to Putin” whenever they get the chance. But it seems like in this debate, it's enough for them to name-drop Putin—whatever that guy’s doing! Trump is the first to actually mention the biggest news in Russia this month—the jetliner crash in Egypt that killed all the mostly Russian passengers. “If Putin wants to go knock the hell out of ISIS, I'm all for it,” Trump said. —Marina Koren
10:24 pm: Trump: Hey, if Putin wants to fight ISIS, let him have it. This isn't actually that far from the attitudes of many American foreign-policy experts. —David Graham
10:23 pm: Trump and Putin, apparently best buds after hanging out during a 60 minutes appearance. —Gillian White
10:23 pm: If the lesson of history is that when America pulls back, bad things happen, as Jeb Bush asserts, one wonders how long he would've wanted the Vietnam War to be waged. —Conor Friedersdorf
10:22 pm: Jeb Bush says the U.S. needs a no-fly zone over Syria and safe zones for refugees fleeing the country. “We've not dealt with this threat of terror in the Middle East.” —Marina Koren
10:21 pm: Jeb Bush says that Islamic terrorism is the biggest treat today. “We have a caliphate the size of Indiana,” he said. —Priscilla Alvarez
10:21 pm: Ben Carson suggests that Russia's presence in Syria is an argument in favor of the United States being there too. Another perspective: Russia's presence in the other side of a weird multi-party proxy war significantly increases the potential costs of American presence in the country. —Conor Friedersdorf
10:20 pm: Ben Carson draws a question on counter-terrorism policy, and whether he backs putting troops in Syria and leaving them in Afghanistan. That's bad luck, because his answer is incoherent; he says we “can't give up ground,” notes that Putin and China are in Syria, and well, who even knows. The only clear takeaway: “We have to destroy their caliphate.” —David Graham
10:19 pm: Carson on Obama's decision to send special forces into Syria to aid in the fight against the Islamic State. “Well, putting the special ops people in there is better than not having them in there.” —Marina Koren
10:18 pm: Rand Paul lands what might be the first effective blow on Trump during a debate. Concise, accurate, and striking at one of his standard stump-speech lines. —Matt Ford
10:17 pm: Once again, a candidate—in this case Rand Paul—has stepped in to do the moderator's job of fact-checking and pushing back against the other candidates' statements. Interestingly, Trump has no comeback at all as Paul disputes his trade statements. He's completely shut down. —Molly Ball
10:17 pm: After catching Donald Trump mistakenly believing that China was a party to the TPP, Rand Paul could've pressed his advantaged with a line like, “As is so often true, the frontrunner has no idea what he's talking about, as confident as he sounds.” Instead he went easy on Trump. I wonder why. —Conor Friedersdorf
10:15 pm: What's this? Is that the sound of a potential, quite unexpected, Rand Paul comeback? At least on the stage tonight, Paul seems like his usual, fired-up self, and not the politician we saw nearly complaining about running for president during a livestream of his day on the campaign trail. —Marina Koren
10:15 pm: Rand: “Hey, Gerard, we might want to point out China's not a part of this deal.” —Molly Ball
10:14 pm: Weird moment: The outtro music for the next ad break starts playing, but Gerard Baker and Rand Paul are in too rapt a discussion of TPP to stop and let the ads run. —David Graham
10:12 pm: Trump says the TPP was “designed for China to come through the back door,” which would probably come to a significant surprise to China, since the trade pact's unstated purpose is to counterbalance Chinese economic influence in the Pacific. —Matt Ford
10:12 pm: Trump describes the Trans-Pacific Partnership the way a mother would that one kid in her son's class: “It's a deal that's going to lead to nothing but trouble.” —Marina Koren
10:11 pm: Trump is trying to split the difference on the Trans-Pacific Partnership—he's not against trade deals per se, he suggests; just against this particular trade deal, which he says is badly negotiated. —David Graham
10:11 pm: Trump: “The TPP is a horrible deal. It was designed for China to come through the back door, like they always do.” —Gillian White
10:10 pm: Fiorina's tax policy is still simply, “three page tax code”—Gillian White