Last night, Fox News hosted the 7th GOP debate, the last one held before the raucous caucus in Iowa. Donald Trump opted out, Sen. Rand Paul came back, and there was plenty of policy insights — and drama — to go around. Here are our top 5 insights from the debate.
Sen. Rand Paul missed the last debate, and skipped the last undercard. This debate saw his return, and highlighted him at his best. He reminded voters of his libertarian message and seemed to hit all the right notes for his following — he even quoted John Adams on constitutional issues, for example.
For reformist conservatives and libertarians, his answers on building a multiracial coalition on criminal justice and the Drug War had to be heartening — a policy that has appeal with the other side of the aisle. On foreign policy, Sen. Paul once again set himself apart, making the case for not fighting Assad and striking a more non-interventionist tone compared to hawks like Sen. Rubio. He also made a case for not collecting bulk data through the NSA, a key libertarian talking point — and cause for filibusters — throughout his Senate career.
He also argued that he was the one true fiscal conservative, bringing up his record on budgets and the debt. As is typical for him, he kept to his professorial style — and repeatedly pointed out that other candidates, from Sen. Rubio to Sen. Cruz, could not “have it both ways” on the issues.
One can ask whether or not Paul’s moment will keep him in the race, as he still faces exclusion, based on poll numbers, from ABC’s Feb. 6th debate. But last night, Rand Paul, the comeback kid, had his moment in the sun.
As the old adage goes, crabs in a bucket will gladly drag down the crab at the top rather than letting them climb out. The absence of Donald Trump, the current leader in the polls, was mentioned immediately and repeatedly in last night’s debate.
In his absence, however, Ted Cruz became the top crab, and both the moderators and his fellow candidates were eager to take him down.
Cruz had a strong performance out of the gate. His answer to the ethanol question, with Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad name-dropped, showed his dedication to his own economic principles. His immigration answer — where he was able to immediately cite his entire, 38 word poison pill amendment to the Gang of Eight bill — was much stronger than Sen. Rubio’s answers on the issue. His invocation of his large volunteer base as a key endorsement was a great answer to the accusation that he is unpopular in Washington.
His cringe-worthy back-and-forth with moderator Chris Wallace, however, was an awkward moment for him. Rand Paul attacked him on libertarian issues to try and prevent Cruz from further cementing sway he has over that voting bloc. Despite these setbacks, Cruz still had a good performance overall, proving that, if he doesn’t imitate Trump again versus a moderator, he can hold his own at the top of the bucket.
One of the other great narratives of the night was the fighting between former Florida allies Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio. The teacher largely played the foil, attacking Marco Rubio on his immigration weak spot and trying to shore up his own position as an Establishment candidate by weakening his student. Bush wielded his personal history with Rubio like a knife, bringing up that Rubio asked him to support the Gang of Eight bill.
But Bush’s attacks — and Marco’s weak responses to Megyn Kelly’s killer immigration question — could not overcome what has become obvious: that the Republican establishment is in the tank for Sen. Rubio. Rubio’s answers throughout the night conformed to think tank and Party orthodoxy, from his repeated invocation of ISIS, to his economic plan, to his slogan of “A New American Century”, a call back to the William Kristol-founded neoconservative think tank, Project for a New American Century. Sen. Rubio has enough support — and did well enough last night — to stay alive into the early primaries.
On a stylistic note, Rubio seemed to answer every question with both his stump speech material and with a swift increase in volume — it sounded like he was yelling by the end of all of his answers. It’s almost like he downed a can of Red Bull before answering each question.
Iowa may be the first primary, but New Hampshire is not far behind, and the more moderate candidates are all jockeying for position. The two moderates that did the best — or is it, perhaps, the least badly? — were Gov. John Kasich and Gov. Jeb Bush.
Polling-wise, Kasich is currently leading the moderates; he mentioned his numbers in New Hampshire in one of his answers. While he was not the only candidate to call for unity — Rubio mentioned uniting the party multiple times — Kasich set himself apart with repeated invocations of coming together and the third-way “Kasich path.” His answers on preventing the recidivism of criminals and the mentally ill stood out, and he was also not as abrasive as he was in previous debates. As a side note, Kasich also used the phrasing “right to rise,” a blatant robbery of Jeb Bush’s campaign slogan that no one on stage seemed to catch.
In the absence of Donald Trump’s needling, Bush’s more genteel stylings went over much better. His answers have gotten better, although he did sound hesitant on some questions — and mentioned Trump long after the time for jokes at his expense had passed. His take down of Rubio syncs with the ads he’s been running, and seems like a viable strategy to preserve what little of the moderate base he has left. Bush also had some good policy answers — he is clearly a Puerto Rico wonk, and even found time to hawk his book Immigration Wars.
Dr. Ben Carson said, at one point, “you’re not going to hear a lot of polished political speech from me, but you will hear the truth.” In truth, we didn’t hear much of anything from Dr. Carson. He was surprised to be asked a question at one point, and many of his policy responses seemed incoherent. It’s amazing to think he was leading the polls less than two months ago.
Gov. Chris Christie, it seemed, wasted a lot of good opportunities to bolster himself by attacking other candidates, instead preferring to harp on Hillary Clinton. While other candidates — Rubio, mainly — also invoked Clinton, Christie sounded like a one-track record. Given that Kasich is consolidating Christie’s potential moderate base in New Hampshire, and given that Trump has the New York/Jersey tough guy shtick down pat, one would think that Christie would try and make himself stand out. Instead, we continued to get more of the same, including variations on his tired “the Senate is too complicated, I was a governor” routine.