Fox Business Republican Debate: Was Rubio Winner on Points?

GOP debate 11-10-2015

Image courtesy of Fox Business News

Fox Business Republican Debate:

Was Rubio Winner on Points?

| published November 11, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor


Though there were occasional outbursts of the sort of fireworks typical of recent Republican debates—especially on the topics of immigration and banking—eight Presidential contenders on stage Tuesday night in Wisconsin engaged in what many political observers regard as the most substantive GOP forum yet this year.

Focusing primarily on economic and financial issues, the debate—hosted by Fox Business Channel and the Wall Street Journal—gave the eight top tier presidential candidates a chance to contrast and compare their economic visions for the nation. In stark contrast to the previous debate—conducted by CNBC in late October and generally regarded as an overtly hostile forum by many Republicans—Fox News moderators in Wisconsin said from the start that they intended to stay focused on issues, stressing several times that “this debate is not about us, it’s about the candidates.”

The panel of questioners included Fox News commentator and moderator Neil Cavuto, Fox Business Network anchor Maria Bartiromo, and Wall Street Journal editor-in-chief and economic analyst Gerard Baker. Indeed, there was substance aplenty, and the candidates seemed for the most part to relish a debate about issues, not personalities or poll numbers. After the debate, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus declared his pleasure that things went smoothly, and praised the Fox Business moderators for their determination so stick to the issues and treat the candidates with respect. That now-contentious CNBC-hosted GOP debate in October raised questions of media fairness, especially among Republicans, who considered the forum an unvarnished venue for cheap, personal attacks on the candidates, and an undisguised attempt to make the debate into a media circus. Candidate Ted Cruz (R-Texas) likened it to “a cage match,” which triggered a revolt by the candidates, and turned the forum into a media-versus-contestant brawl.

By contrast, this week’s debate was polite almost to a fault—save for one notable exchange in which Bartiromo was booed when she implied that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had the most impressive political resume of all candidates of both parties. Bartiromo’s words on Clinton were part of a question being framed for Florida Senator Marco Rubio, to whom she asked “why should the American people trust you to lead this country even though she [Clinton] has been so much closer to the office?” Rubio responded with humor.

“That’s a great question,” Rubio said with a smile, “and let me begin by answering it.” The auditorium erupted with laughs. Rubio’s answer fit neatly into his ongoing campaign theme—that this election is about the future, not the past.

Aside from that incident, however, the candidates seemed to relish the chance to talk policy, though many of them repeatedly—and perhaps not surprisingly—dodged giving direct or clear answers, choosing instead to reframe the questions to fit their campaign rhetoric. The Fox Business News moderators also took care to avoid pitting candidates against one another in personal or emotional confrontations—another hallmark of the CNBC debate, and one which even many journalists thought was inappropriate.

Tuesday’s debate, which was held in the grand Milwaukee Theater, in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin, featured the eight top tier candidates. Four others appeared earlier the same evening in the “secondary” debate, the lower tier venue for candidates whose polling numbers did not qualify for the main event. Three others, whose polling was determined to be less than 1% in at least four major polls, were excluded altogether: South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, former New York Governor George Pataki, and former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore.

That meant that viewers who tuned in to the prime time event saw, for the first time, a field of less than ten on the stage for the primary debate. With only 90 days before Iowans vote, and with less than one year before Election Day 2016, this debate was considered crucial—especially for the survival of several candidates who must reassure donors and volunteers that their cause is worth fighting for, and to attract undecided voters who may still be shopping among the crowded field of candidates.

For former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the night was widely viewed as make-or-break. For Ben Carson, the night was an essential platform for regaining control of his campaign narrative. For former Ohio Governor John Kasich and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, the debate was one more opportunity to break out of their bookend positions at either end of the stage.

And for the moderators at Fox Business News, this venue was chance for the network to claim the high ground in what became a nasty battle between some in the media, and those at the RNC who consider the CNBC debate—held last month in Boulder, Colorado—to have been little more than a deliberate and brazen attempt by a predominantly liberal network (and its liberal parent company NBC Universal) to sabotage the GOP.

On points, Rubio was the clear winner, again burnishing his position as the establishment candidate of choice if—or when—other candidates begin to drop out or suspend campaigning. Rubio’s concise, cogent answers often pegged the meter with the audience, which frequently gave him the loudest applause in any round of specific questions. Rubio also had a chance to sharpen his now familiar narrative of his humble beginnings and the struggles of his parents, often framing his story in a way to show that he is the ideal candidate to face off against Hillary Clinton in November 2016, when voters will have to make a choice between “the politics of the past, or leadership for the future.”

Rubio was also a big hit on social media, where—according to Thomson Reuters and other media tracking firms—he drew positive comments on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr.

Another factor in Rubio’s generally upscale performance: several exchanges on foreign policy which Rubio handled with skill and muscle, giving concise, crowd-pleasing answers, and making it clear that he does not want to be mistaken for a lightweight on military or strategic policy. Rubio said the United States must be prepared to confront resurgences in power—and sometimes assertions of power—by Russia and China.

In theory, Rubio’s closest rival in the room was former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, whose campaign—once the most heavily funded and well-organized of all the GOP contestants—has struggled to stay relevant in a field now dominated at the top by political outsiders like Carson, businessman Donald Trump, and former HP CEO Carly Fiorina. Bush’s performance in Milwaukee was strong (though not outstanding), and according to some media sources with connections to those among the biggest Bush supporters, his even-handed and competent showing did much to relieve the frustrations and frayed nerves of his supporters and financial backers. After dropping into fifth or sixth place in some polls last month, Bush rebooted his campaign—lowering salaries, trimming staff and expenses, limiting travel, and concentrating the majority of his firepower on Iowa and New Hampshire, where he and his team still feel he could pull of a win or a solid second place.

But Bush is also counting on Florida, which for now at least looks to face a deep division in support between two of its favorite sons. Though most political analysts and pundits expected Bush and Rubio to clash hard in Milwaukee, no such combative exchange took place. Bush did take issue with others on the stage, especially on immigration, which proved to be one of the most explosive issues of the night.

Indeed, both Kasich and Bush took issue with Donald Trump’s now famous proposal to deport some 11.2 million illegal immigrants from the United States. Trump has said that all undocumented residents must leave, and return only after they have chosen to enter the country legally. Trump has also proposed building “a wall the likes of which you have never seen” along the U.S. border with Mexico to prevent or discourage illegal entry. Kasich and Bush ridiculed Trump’s proposal, suggesting that it would be logistically impossible—as well as morally repugnant—to separate members of families and deport by train and by bus millions of people.

Trump countered by citing the example of mass deportations during the administration of Dwight Eisenhower. Trump said that Eisenhower successfully moved some 1.5 million illegal immigrants out of the U.S.

But Trump’s citation of the events in the 1950s left out some important facts. The Eisenhower administration did launch a major effort to expel Mexican workers, many of whom had been recruited into the country to fill industrial, construction and agricultural jobs which were vacant as U.S. servicemen fought in Europe or the Pacific. Though many of the Mexicans were in the U.S. legally as part of the “Bracero Program,” many more arrived illegally amid the throngs and the confusion. U.S. officials and U.S. businesses turned a blind eye to the distinction, allowing the Mexican workers to remain whether they had proper documentation or not. Labor was too badly needed to waste time checking papers. After the war, and as American soldiers returned home and went looking for employment, a government-sponsored plan was launched to nudge many of the immigrants out of the country—some forcibly, some voluntarily. The program was named, shockingly and inelegantly, “Operation Wetback.” But accurate numbers, which range from 200,000 to more than one million, may never be known for how effective it was at expelling Mexican immigrants.

Bush and Kasich clearly sought to drive home the point that forcible, mass deportations are both costly in the extreme (if not impossible), as well as a morally repugnant solution to the issue of establishing citizenship for those who have arrived in the U.S. looking for work. Others on the stage said that immigration is still an economic issue, and pointed to the problem of creating enough jobs for those already here, legally or otherwise.

The immigration topic was one of two issues which prompted some of the most intense sparring between candidates, pitting hardliners like Trump and Texas Senator Ted Cruz against moderates like Kasich and Bush. Cruz said that the media the Washington establishment have distorted the immigration issue, disconnecting it from the harsh realities of the unemployment and under-employment facing millions of Americans in the U.S. legally.

Bush worried aloud that the shrill nature of the immigration talk will work to the Democrats’ advantage.

“Right now,” Bush said, “they’re doing high fives over at Clinton headquarters.”

Banking was another subject which triggered fireworks and theatrics, and again both Bush and Kasich were at the center of the discussion. When candidates were asked about the concept of “too big to fail,” several Republican candidates suggested that in the event of a future potential bank collapse, banks should be allowed to fail—sort of—though few of the candidates were willing to say precisely that depositors’ money should be allowed to be wiped out. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz each contended that the Federal Reserve has, over the years, distorted and manipulated the financial system in such a way as to make failure more likely, not less likely. Carson, Bush and Kasich all seemed to suggest that banks should be required to maintain adequate capitalization, in effect self-insuring that middle-income people do not suffer when a bank collapses. All agreed that banks had grown too large and too interconnected under the current administration, but most shied away from saying directly that the megabanks should be broken up by federal regulators.

Front runners Donald Trump and Ben Carson performed, on the whole, reasonably well during the two-hour-plus debate. During their post-debate analysis, Fox Business Network anchors were quick to declare Carson fit to continue campaigning despite a series of problems relating to the stories he has told about himself or written about himself over the years. In recent weeks Carson has undergone extreme media and investigative scrutiny, and has come under fire for exaggerations about his past, including his claims that he was once offered a scholarship to West Point, and claims about his high school and college education.

“I have no problem being vetted,” Carson told the audience, “but what I do have a problem with is being lied about.”

During the debate, Carson again used his soft-spoken style to woo potential supporters—giving carefully worded, thoughtful responses to questions. Carson again approached the issue of taxation from the standpoint of tithing. Though he declined to set the bar for taxation at a particular rate (he has said in the past it might be in the range of 15%), he assured the audience that his simple, flat tax proposal would work—but only if all deductions and loopholes were eliminated from the tax code, and only if the tax laws are streamlined. Carson stressed that eliminating deductions for things like charitable giving, for example, it doesn’t mean that people or corporations will become less generous, since people often give more when their earning power rises.

In the wake of intense scrutiny of Carson’s personal history—much of which is a part of his speeches and found in his books—the retired neurosurgeon used the media storm to attract still more support from voters who thought the press had gone too far in its explorations of his past words. The Carson campaign actually saw an increase in donations over the last two weeks, and crowds at his book-signing events have grown even larger.

As the debate focused on deep policy talk and financial governance, the normally boisterous Trump became notably quiet, rarely interjecting and—when called upon—keeping his answers brief. Some political observers have noted this phenomenon after past debate performances. Trump was also, on the whole, restrained in his direct attacks on opponents on stage. After the debate, Fox Business Network commentators commented on Trump’s more modest performance, and asked Trump—in a brief post-debate interview—if the businessman’s new style represented his response to Carson’s surge in the polls. Though Trump did not offer a direct answer, he did suggest that the “elegant” tone and mood set by the Fox moderators helped to keep the debate civil, and diverted the forum away from personal attacks and angry confrontations.

The next day, many Bush supporters said they were breathing a sigh of relief after his better-than-expected performance. Some within his campaign, and many of his biggest donors, said they were satisfied that Bush has regained his footing, and that his campaign is back on track for strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire.

But problems still loom for Bush as many post-debate polls show that Rubio and Cruz may have scored more points with their powerful answers and firebrand responses. Bush, Rubio and Cruz may be at the start of a long three-way battle for the control of the “mainstream” segment of the GOP bases. In particular, support for Bush has been most often pulled away as Rubio slowly ascends in the polls, and Cruz attempts to tug Tea Party and fiscal hardliners into his column.

Fiorina also gave a strong performance in Milwaukee, but many analysts have pointed out for weeks that her once powerful surge—which took her from the depths of the bottom tier to within striking distance of the top—has stalled, and may have reached its peak six weeks ago. To gain footing in the Fox Business debate, Fiorina often interjected or interrupted the proceedings, a fact later commented upon by post-debate analysts. Among her frequent topics: Obamacare, which she favors eliminating immediately, and a simplified tax code—reducing the actual tax documents to a three-page form.

Rand Paul also gave a strong performance, but his libertarian positions occasionally put him at dramatic odds with other candidates on the stage—notably in one sharp exchange between Rubio and Paul on the costs of military spending and the increasing burden of foreign wars and regional interventions.

Related Thursday Review articles:

The Democratic Forum: Who Among You is the Most Progressive & Wise?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; November 10, 2015.

Huckabee, Christie Get Bumped From Fox News Debate; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; November 6, 2015.