Donald Trump was a condescending, narrow-minded braggart who dismissed the governor of Ohio like a billionaire to a bum: “I don’t have to hear from this man.” In other words, the fourth GOP presidential debate was as enlightening as the first three.
Eight Republican candidates squared off in Wisconsin for a debate televised by Fox Business Network, which, along with its cosponsors at The Wall Street Journal, kept questions tame and tilted toward the economy.
The issue that sparked the fiercest exchange: immigration.
“It was a terrific thing that that happened,” Trump said of a federal appeals court ruling on Monday that upheld a lower court’s decision against President Obama’s executive orders easing deportation threats on millions of illegal immigrants.
Trump reiterated his vague promise to deport them all. “We’re a country of laws. We either have a country or we don’t have a country. They’re going to have to go out,” the GOP front-runner said, “and hopefully they get back.”
John Kasich, a popular Ohio governor who helped balance the federal budget as a congressman in the 1990s, reminded GOP voters that Ronald Reagan eased immigration laws. He also called out Trump for pandering. “Think about the families. Think about the children,” Kasich said, adding that deporting 11 million people is unfeasible. “It’s a silly argument. It’s not an adult argument. It makes no sense.”
Trump tried to compare his plan with President Eisenhower’s actions, a fallacious argument that Kasich tried to counter. Trump wouldn’t let him. “You should let Jeb speak,” said the New York real estate mogul and reality TV star.
He was referring to Jeb Bush, the brother and son of former presidents whose campaign is on the brink of collapse, despite a conservative record as the governor of Florida and a common-sense approach to immigration that might slow the siphoning of Hispanic voters from the GOP.
Bush was slow to pick up the cue—a bad habit of his—and Kasich tried to counter Trump again.
“I built a company worth billions and billions of dollars,” said Trump, who has admitted to exaggerating his business successes. “I don’t have to hear from this man.”
Finally, Bush spoke up. “Thank you, Donald, for letting me speak at the debate.” The audience laughed at the sarcasm, if not at Trump. “What a generous man you are.”
Bush then spoke the truth about Trump’s immigration rhetoric. “It’s just not possible and it’s not embracing American values and it would tear families apart,” he said, “and even having this conversation sends a powerful signal: They’re doing high fives in the Clinton campaign when they’re hearing this.”
The savviest counter to Bush came not from Trump, but from Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who argued that mainstream journalists are out of touch. If illegal immigrants were pouring across the border, taking jobs in newsrooms, and driving down the wages of reporters, Cruz declared, “then we would see stories about the economic calamity that is befalling our nation.”
He has a point: It is too easy for columnists like me to read demographic tables inside the Washington Beltway and ignore the psychological results of job losses and lifestyle declines in the rest of America, where wages have stalled and opportunities have been sucked out of an economy transitioning from the industrial era. People are justifiably anxious, their fears easily exploited.
“For millions of Americans at home watching this,” Cruz said, “it is a very personal issue.”
Widespread economic anxiety, combined with wrenching social change and a feckless political elite, has given rise to outsider candidates like Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. Cruz wants to ride that angry wave, too—and, chances are, nothing about Tuesday’s debate changed the race’s dynamics.
Another hot exchange occurred around military spending, which most Republican candidates favor almost without question. The exception is Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who asked interventionist Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, “Can you be a conservative and be liberal on military spending?"
Rubio called Paul a “committed isolationist.”
Paul fired back: “As we go further and further into debt, we become less and less safe.”
Trump aligned himself closer to Paul and the Democratic Party than to Rubio and the neoconservatives, urging President Obama to stay out of Syria and let Russian President Vladimir Putin have his way. “Look at Libya! Look at Iraq!” Trump said, making the point that toppling tyrants like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad isn’t always in the nation’s best interests. “We have nothing!”
Bush, whose father and brother fought Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, told Trump that while the United States can’t be the world’s policeman, “we sure as heck ought to be the world’s leader.”
The only woman in the field, former CEO Carly Fiorina, pushed back on Paul and, when the Kentucky senator replied, she pushed back again.
Off camera, Trump could be heard grousing. “Why does she keep interrupting everybody? Terrible.”
A smattering of boos came from the audience. Terrible.