Seriously, this is a race for the presidency.
After three debates that took on the aura of a “cage match,” the Fox Business Network encounter in Milwaukee inched closer to more comprehensive policy discussion.
That may not have been good news for Donald Trump and Ben Carson — who struggled at times when laying out a foreign policy strategy — but the greater focus at the debate was on the economy, where they could instead make a populist appeal.
That the debates would move into a policy phase comes after complaints over the questions posed by the moderators of the last debate on CNBC, which the GOP slammed for being mean-spirited.
This also may have been the debate of interruptions, as if the clock ticking toward primary dates has emboldened candidates to do what it takes to be heard. “Why does she keep interrupting everybody?” Trump, risking criticism for sounding sexist, asked after Carly Fiorina tried to chime in.
Below, five highlights from the more policy-driven debate.
1. Minimum wage. The first question of the debate was whether candidates would raise the minimum wage — perhaps a Fox Business Network effort to contrast their approach to CNBC’s, which asked candidates in their inaugural query, “What is your greatest weakness?” It helped set the tone for the rest of the debate — hinting that perhaps it would be more substantive, and aimed to create a record on an issue that may very well become a key focus in the general election campaign.
“In the 21st Century, it’s a disaster,” Rubio said.
Ben Carson, meanwhile, said that he would not favor raising the minimum wage, in contrast to what he has said previously.
2. Immigration: After Trump defended his plan to deport illegal immigrants as something that Dwight D. Eisenhower did in the 1950s (called Operation Wetback, seriously), John Kasich called the plan “silly” and Jeb Bush said that the plan “is just not possible.”
“They are doing high fives in the Clinton campaign when they hear this,” Bush said.
The exchange seemed to show the level of contempt Bush and Kasich have for Trump — and that he has for them.
“I’ve built an unbelievable company worth billions of dollars. I don’t have to hear from him,” Trump snapped at Kasich, before turning to Bush.
“Thank you for letting me speak at this debate,” Bush, in a snarkish tone, said in response to Trump.
3. Tax policy: Some of the candidates competed with each other to present the most dramatic overhaul of the tax code — Ted Cruz actually wants to eliminate the IRS, while Carson said he would institute a 10% flat tax and also eliminate the mortgage and charitable deductions. As the Twitter-sphere noted, Cruz also risked evoking another Texan, Rick Perry, when he twice named the Commerce Department as a place where he would cut government spending.
But Rand Paul diverted the conversation towards out-of-control defense spending. His question was whether you could be a “conservative” yet still favor “unlimited military spending,” a contrast to much of the rest of the field, which actually favors a boost.
It set the stage for an exchange with Marco Rubio, and helped Paul make a show for himself after not leaving much of a mark in previous debates.
“The world is a safer place when America is the strongest military power in the world,” Rubio said in response, getting some of the biggest applause of the evening.
But Paul also got in one of the night’s more memorable touché moments after Trump bemoaned the Trans Pacific Partnership for not noting anything about China’s currency manipulation.
“We might want to point out that China is not a part of this deal,” Paul said.
4. Vladimir Putin: A question about Syria and ISIS devolved into who would stand up to Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Carson’s response was somewhat incoherent, while Trump welcomed Putin’s intervention into Syria.
“We can’t continue to be the policemen of the world,” Trump said. He even pointed to the fact that he knows Putin because they were “stablemates” when they were on the same “60 Minutes” episode.
Fiorina used the comment to note that she knows Putin better than he does, and that their meeting was “not in a green room for a show.”
Actually, all of the candidates are going to have to reckon with what they are going to do differently in a region where there are no good options.
Bush said, “We’re not going to be the world’s policeman, but we better sure as heck be the world’s leader.”
But his advocacy of a “no-fly” zone carries its own complications, such as questions of whether that would mean the U.S. would be in the position of shooting down a Russian plane, as Paul pointed out.
5. Carson’s biography: Carson didn’t have the best night, but he did deflect questions of his biographical details after complaining about a media double-standard.
“I have no problems being vetted. What I do have a problem with is being lied about,” he said, before veering off into a chat about Hillary Clinton’s response to the attacks in Benghazi.
His response won’t stop the media scrutiny, but at least he showed a bit of humor about it.
“Thank you for not asking me about what I said in the 10th grade. I appreciate that.”
It evoked some of the humor of another candidate for president, when an elementary school essay was used briefly against him in 2007 to show that he was perhaps overly ambitious. The essay was “I want to be president,” written by Barack Obama when he was a kid.