Did We Learn Anything From The Long, Chaotic Republican Debate?

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Thu, Sep 17 - 3:06 pm EDT | 7 months ago by
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Corridors of Power: GOP Debate

The second Republican debate was nothing if not a marathon. Lasting three hours, it was sometimes hard to tell what was going on, with each of the candidates vying to get a word in edgewise, and moderator Jake Tapper seemingly content to let them say whatever they wanted with little direction. I found myself agreeing with John Kasich, who at times felt like the only adult in the room, when he interrupted a side debate between Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina over their respective business records and said that the lack of substance and vitriol in these back and forths would lead him to turn off the TV were he watching at home.

There was a whole lot of anger coursing through the veins of the debate; Trump implying Rand Paul is ugly; Paul calling Trump “sophomoric.” And in general, too many of the candidate statements struck me as overly rehearsed and canned. The genuine exchanges and off-the-cuff statements however, were when the candidates had a chance to shine. Fiorina and Paul, as well as Jeb BushBen Carson, John Kasich, Marco Rubio and even Chris Christie, had moments that made them seem relatable and real. Mike Huckabee, hopefully, won’t be on the stage next time.

One of the better parts of the debate from my perspective as a moderate libertarian, was when Rand Paul was given the opportunity to shine on criminal justice reform. This is an area where he made a name for himself in the Senate, and he was the clear authority driving the debate discussion. He explained, as he often has, how our drug laws disproportionately impact low-income and minority communities, and said that marijuana legalization should be a state issue. I enjoyed Paul taking the fight to Bush, accusing him of hypocritically jailing kids for smoking pot just as he did in high school. This exchange led Bush to say he does agree that the issue should be dealt with on a state level, though he personally opposes legalization. This makes Bush preferable policy-wise compared to Rubio or Christie.

But even Christie, who has repeatedly said he would enforce federal marijuana laws, sounded far less hardcore law-and-order than he normally does, noting that drug users require rehabilitation, and acknowledging that his home state of New Jersey does in fact allow marijuana for medical use. Fiorina also chimed in, critically citing the fact that the U.S. has the highest incarceration rates in the world, and called for reform, but noted the scourge of drugs with a personal anecdote about the death of her step-daughter; a moment when she came across as relatable and sympathetic.

Overall, the criminal justice exchange struck me as a net benefit for Paul, who needed an opportunity to show voters why he is in fact a different Republican, and came out looking like a leader. He was also given the chance to show his contrasts with the other candidates in the realm of foreign policy, which is crucial for him, and voters. As Jim Antle wrote at the Washington Examiner:

“The Kentucky senator didn’t try to paper over or shy away from his foreign policy differences with the rest of the Republican field. He went out of his way to say he had always opposed the Iraq War. And he went on to suggest that many of his opponents hadn’t necessarily learned the lessons of that war, even if they now reluctantly concede it was a mistake.

‘Every time we have toppled a secular dictator, we have gotten chaos, the rise of radical Islam, and we’re more at risk,’ he argued. ‘So, I think we need to think before we act, and know most interventions, if not a lot of them in the Middle East, have actually backfired on us.’”

In my view, Paul is at his best when he contrasts himself from the rest of the field, particularly on the two issues he had a chance to do so at the debate. While Paul does have a tough balancing act when it comes to appealing to Republicans who actually vote in primaries and courting his more libertarian base, I believe there’s something to be said about expanding the traditional base by bringing disaffected independents into the process. Paul did a good job of reminding people why he’s different, but whether that’s enough to mount a comeback in the polls is yet to be seen. At this point I think it’s clear that Paul has nothing to lose, and should try to highlight how he’s different seeing as voters are clearly sick of the same old candidates.

As for other genuinely good moments in the debate, Carly Fiorina’s passionate diatribe against the recently revealed corrupt practices of Planned Parenthood were on point emotionally. And although I disagree with the policies he tries to buoy with his personal stories about 9/11, Christie comes across as genuine when discussing how his family was impacted. Bush also had a few surprisingly great moments sparring with Trump. He called Trump out for cronyism by trying to push casinos in Florida and failing. And when he asked Trump to apologize to his wife Columba, who is from Mexico and was in the audience, Bush came across as a fighter in a way he’s failed to before.

Naturally, Trump refused to apologize to Columba Bush for his denigrating comments about Mexicans, but said he believes she’s “lovely.” This was reminiscent of another moment when Trump demurred, saying he believed Carly Fiorina is a “beautiful woman,” after he’d recently criticized her looks. Overall, Trump looked weak in this debate; back-tracking a lot, particularly when he essentially admitted that he has no foreign policy experience – but reassured us that he’s putting together “a great team, with great people.”

All in all, the consensus seems to be that both Fiorina and Rubio performed the best, and I would agree with that, with the caveat that as a disaffected libertarian, I found their extremely hawkish positions on foreign policy to be disconcerting. I tend to side with Rubio on economics and immigration, and appreciate that he’s young and articulate. I just can’t get past the fact that he’s calling for more war in the Middle East, and seemingly refuses to acknowledge how the very interventions he supported have led to chaos, as Paul articulated well.

This, ultimately, is the predicament a moderate libertarian finds themselves in when it comes to the Republican field. After Paul, Kasich sounded the most reasonable to me on foreign policy, talking about the importance of diplomacy and not going it alone. Yet on economic issues, Kasich is far too liberal for my tastes, with his expansion of Medicaid being a prime example. He has also made highly concerning overtures on expanding the failed War on Drugs.

Paul is still the candidate I agree with most, and I don’t see that changing. But truth be told, I do wonder whether he has what it takes to compete in this field longterm. Most voters look more to style over substance, and candidates like Rubio, Fiorina, and even Kasich come across as the most presidential. In my opinion, the biggest losers of the debate were Cruz, Walker, and Trump.

Walker has struggled to show his appeal beyond Wisconsin’s borders, relying on vague platitudes about a “proven record,” but doing very little to show how his experience will translate on a national level. And Cruz seemed to fall back on lectures that sounded more suited for a Federalist Society debate than a presidential one. I almost fell asleep when he went on a diatribe about which Supreme Court justices he would’ve appointed. Surely Cruz knows 99% of his audience had no idea who he was even talking about?

Trump continues to be a media darling insofar as he drives ratings, but polls show fellow outsiders Carson and Fiorina gaining on him. I like Carson as a person, and was happy that he had the chance to shine by calling Trump out for promoting a link between autism and vaccines. As someone highly invested in policy over style however, I find Carson lacking, because he just doesn’t seem to have a command of the issues necessary to be Commander in Chief. Of the non-politicians on stage, Fiorina is by far the most knowledgeable, and I predict she will reap the benefits of Trump’s eventual decline. And I’m still holding out hope that Paul will, too.

All in all, it was a rather chaotic debate, but it does accurately reflect the nature of the field. There’s no clear frontrunner, and voters seem to be schizophrenic about what issues matter, and who they support. This is still anybody’s game, and I think in the short-term, Walker will continue to fade, Kasich along with Fiorina will find themselves thrust further into the spotlight, and Rubio might see a bit of a bump as well. Bush ought to be wary of Kasich, just as Cruz and Paul should fear the “outsider triumvirate.” Those two were banking on the tea party and disaffected independents, but their Senator titles, despite being held for less than a full-term, don’t seem to be doing them any favors.

As Carly Fiorina said, people are rightfully sick of the corruption in Washington, and are looking for alternatives. Where that will ultimately lead voters is still anyone’s guess.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Corie Whalen Stephens is a libertarian-conservative activist and writer based in Houston, Texas.

Click through the gallery below to see where many of the GOP candidates stand on the issues Americans care about.

Donald Trump

Learn more about where Donald Trump stands on the issues.

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Ben Carson

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Ted Cruz

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Marco Rubio

Learn more about where Marco Rubio stands on the issues.

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Scott Walker

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Jeb Bush

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Rand Paul

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Mike Huckabee

Learn more about where Mike Huckabee stands on the issues.

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Carly Fiorina

Learn more about where Carly Fiorina stands on the issues.

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