Politics & Policy

Policy Finally Dominates a Debate, but No Knockouts in Milwaukee

(Scott Olson/Getty)

Milwaukee — It was, at last, a debate about policy. If the emergence of Donald Trump and the efforts of previous debate moderators to pit candidates against each other have forestalled the policy arguments that typically characterize Republican primary contests, Fox Business Network’s debate on Tuesday brought them to the fore.

Less than three months before voters go to the polls in January, the candidates clashed on some of the major issues that have divided the Republican party over the past six years: The night’s big moments did not come from one candidate trashing another, but from policy exchanges, first on immigration and then on defense spending. After months of headlines dominated by a real-estate mogul-cum-reality-television star, it was a welcome change of pace.

The event was steady and studious, and the upshot was predictable — an evening that did little to alter the trajectories of individual candidates or the broader narrative of the race. In the course of two hours there were no knockout punches, no major gaffes, no made-for-opposition-research moments. Each of the candidates went silent for a stretch, but none completely disappeared as in previous debates — perhaps because the stage had shrunk to only eight, the smallest primetime grouping to date.

If a single issue can be said to have encapsulated the bitter divisions within the Republican party over the past six years, it is immigration, and the key disagreements between the candidates — over border security, legal immigration, and amnesty — came to the fore during Tuesday’s debate.

RELATED: Ted Cruz Wins the Night

It was Donald Trump, predictably, who started it all. Heaping praise on court rulings that struck down President Obama’s executive action on immigration, he reiterated his intention to build a wall on the Southern border. “We will have a wall, the wall will be built, the wall will be successful,” he said. “And if you don’t think walls work, just ask Israel.”

John Kasich, the prickly Ohio governor standing three podiums away, denounced Trump’s plan as “a silly argument” that “makes no sense,” earning notably louder applause than Trump had.

RELATED: Winners & Losers

Enter Jeb Bush, who rebuked his fellow Republicans for having a conversation about deporting illegal immigrants in the first place. Hillary Clinton’s campaign, he said, was trading “high-fives” over the terrible optics.

The event was steady and studious, and the upshot was predictable — an evening that did little to alter the trajectories of individual candidates.

“That’s the problem with this,” Bush said. “We have to win the presidency. And the way you win the presidency is to have practical plans.” He advocated allowing illegal immigrants to earn legal status after paying fines. “That’s the proper path to making this work,” he said.

The crowd again erupted in applause, seemingly handing the exchange to Bush and Kasich rather than to Trump. Bush was desperately in need of a standout performance after being bulldozed by Marco Rubio at last month’s Colorado debate, and this was perhaps the high point of his evening. As the debate wore on, he seemed to once again disappear for long stretches.

Ted Cruz, ignoring the crowd’s enthusiasm for Bush’s and Kasich’s more moderate immigration stances, then chimed in with the last word on the issue. “If Republicans join Democrats in granting amnesty, we will lose,” he said bluntly. He went on to argue that Republicans could embrace both legal immigration and the rule of law. It wasn’t a hit with the audience in the debate hall, but will play well with Cruz’s grassroots base.

#share#Marco Rubio, whose introduction met with louder applause than any of his rivals’, once again played a starring role Tuesday night. Two weeks after slapping down Bush in a memorable exchange, the Florida senator was involved in another explosive back-and-forth with Rand Paul, the field’s most vocal champion of so-called “non-interventionism.” Rubio is perhaps its most visible proponent of a more muscular foreign policy.

Paul charged that Rubio’s call to increase defense spending is “not very conservative.”

Among Republican primary voters, Rubio knew he was on strong footing, and he pushed back. “I know that Rand is a committed isolationist,” he said, using a term that the Kentucky senator has openly bristled at. Indeed, when Paul laid out his foreign-policy platform a year ago, he declared explicitly that he was “not an isolationist.

Paul was unfazed. “Marco, Marco, Marco,” he said. “How is it conservative to add a trillion dollars in military expenditures?”

“We can’t even have an economy if we’re not safe,” Rubio replied. “There are radical jihadists in the Middle East beheading people and crucifying Christians. A radical Shia cleric in Iran trying to get a nuclear weapon. The Chinese taking over the South China Sea. Yes, I believe the world is a safer and better place when America is the strongest military power in the world.”

It was the biggest applause line of the night, but Paul would not be deterred. “Marco, I don’t think we are any safer from bankruptcy court. As we go further and further into debt, we are less and less safe. This is the most important thing we’re gonna talk about tonight. Can you be a conservative and be for unlimited military spending?”

Cruz jumped in to position himself between his two colleagues, calling for a “middle ground” in the debate — as he has in the Senate, where he’s said his views fall somewhere between those of Rand Paul and John McCain. But he was clearly closer to McCain’s end of the spectrum on Tuesday — or in this case, to Rubio’s. “You think defending this nation is expensive? Try not defending it. That’s a lot more expensive,” Cruz said, winning thunderous applause.

#related#The debate over defense spending and America’s role in the world has roiled the GOP in the years since Barack Obama was elected in 2008 partly on the basis of his promises to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Paul’s election in 2010 gave non-interventionism a spokesman on the Republican side, and he rose to national prominence in large part by articulating his view that the United States should play a more restrained role in world affairs. Rubio was elected in 2010 too, and he has served as the leading spokesman of the opposing view, that strengthening and maintaining America’s role as a beacon of freedom abroad is essential to security at home.

On Tuesday, millions of Republican primary voters had the chance to see that debate and others play out in real time, and to make up their own minds. The reality that the night seemed not to move the needle in any significant direction was apparent from the tone and body language of campaign officials. No one had anything but praise for the moderators. Everyone took to the spin room looking pleased and relaxed if not especially triumphant or dejected, all of them satisfied with their candidate’s performance but none claiming a game-changing moment. Milwaukee produced no consensus loser in the eyes of the campaigns and media, no brewing speculation of anyone dropping out in the days ahead — just talk of soldiering on and bracing for a long, incremental slog to a nominating season that begins Feb. 1 in Iowa.

— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review. Tim Alberta is chief political correspondent for National Review.

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