After the Republicans’ presidential-nomination debate in Milwaukee on Tuesday, the focus of the pundits was almost exclusively on who won and who lost, who performed well and who didn’t, who met expectations and who fell below. That’s understandable. After all, as Mark Twain said, it’s difference of opinion that makes horse races. And I’m not inclined to ignore that aspect of the event; hence, more on that below.
But perhaps a more significant exploration would focus on what the debate tells us about the Republican Party. It tells us that the GOP has coalesced behind a strong antipathy toward what has become known as crony capitalism.
This is no small matter. The country is in crisis, as Senator Ted Cruz said in his closing remarks, and each party must establish a credible narrative outlining the nature of the crisis and an approach to attacking it. For the Democrats, the narrative is clear: The problem is an unequal distribution of money and power. The enemy is rich people. The answer is European-style democratic socialism, with the managerial elite taking on more and more power and pushing more and more programs designed to redistribute wealth and societal prerogative.
Slow economic growth and a shrinking economic pie breed such thinking among liberal-minded people, and so it’s not surprising that there isn’t much of a gap between Bernie Sanders, an avowed socialist, and Hillary Clinton, who seems to have totally discarded her husband’s centrist governing philosophy.
For Republicans, the narrative comes into focus through the attack on crony capitalism. It suggests that this is not a status quo party, not particularly sympathetic to the country-club ethos that once maintained such a hold on the GOP establishment. The Tea Party movement that emerged in 2010 didn’t take over the party, as some feared, but the party clearly has absorbed significant elements of the Tea Party outlook, including the feeling that big government and big business and big finance and big labor are all mired together in a sump of mutual back-scratching and corruption. The word “corruption’’ was tossed around with abandon during the debate.
This suggests the GOP is becoming a party of conservative populism, dedicated to protecting ordinary Americans and the middle class from the elites that dominate much of government, the prestigious media, high finance in New York, academia and the think-tank and NGO world. A significant proportion of what was said in the debate on domestic matters had a ring of Andrew Jackson railing against the Second Bank of the United States. Jackson was the country’s original conservative populist, bent on smashing cozy public-private arrangements whereby government officials benefited through the distribution of favors, emoluments, government contracts and targeted public works projects “to make navigable [favored citizens’] neighboring creek or river, bring commerce to their doors, and increase the value of their property,’’ as Jackson once put it.
Carly Fiorina talked about the need to “take our government back’’ from the elites who now dominate it. She also attacked the Dodd-Frank legislation to regulate banks and securities as “the classic of crony capitalism.’’ Paul railed against the Federal Reserve, saying its low-interest-rate policies have succored the big banks while devastating people of modest means living on fixed incomes. Ted Cruz blasted sugar subsidies and talked about the rich getting in bed with big government in Washington. It seemed that the people who hit these themes most strongly were the ones leading in the polls.
It will be interesting to see what the party does with these themes as the campaign unfolds. But it’s difficult to conceive of primary and caucus voters turning against them or ignoring them. In times of crisis, voters don’t generally opt for the status quo.
In the meantime, the candidates will continue to gnaw at other issues that generate sparks of disagreement. One is immigration, thrust into the nomination battle primarily by Donald Trump’s promise to build a wall along America’s southern border and expel some eleven million illegal immigrants now in the United States. Almost no one sees any credibility in Trump’s vow to expel so many U.S. residents. John Kasich dismissed the idea as a “silly argument, not an adult argument.’’ And Jeb Bush said such an effort would “tear communities apart.’’ He added that “they’re doing high-fives in the Clinton campaign,” because such an incendiary proposal would blight the GOP.
But Cruz said Democrats are laughing because they know that if the Republicans join Democrats as a party of amnesty, the GOP base would erode and the party would lose.
It isn’t easy to sort this out, but one has to ask whether there isn’t an underlying sentiment within the party that likes the symbolism of Trump’s stark rhetoric on the issue—even though they know it isn’t realistic. Otherwise, how does one explain the man’s continued buoyancy in the polls?
The other major area of disagreement was on foreign policy and defense spending. Rand Paul blasted Marco Rubio’s call for massive ongoing defense spending, saying the Florida senator’s spending program, as well as his call for doubling the family tax credit, called into question whether he is in fact a conservative. Rubio shot back, “I know that Rand is a committed isolationist.’’
Trump raised eyebrows among his colleagues when he said he welcomed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military actions against forces fighting Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, including jihadist forces. “If Putin wants to knock the hell out of ISIS,’’ he said, “I am all for it.’’ Bush dismissed such thinking as being “like a board game, that’s like playing Monopoly… That’s not how the real world works.’’ Trump also wondered aloud why the United States should get agitated about Russia’s aggressive stance toward Ukraine when nearby European nations have so much more at stake in the region.
Essentially, the traditional neoconservatives on foreign policy seemed to be Rubio, Bush, Fiorina, Kasich and probably Ben Carson. Paul pressed his well-known preference for a more measured foreign policy, while Trump projected an eclectic mix of foreign policy views.
As for performance, it seemed to go like this:
Rubio: He won the debate on points with a smooth performance marked by a pungent eloquence and engaging demeanor. Rubio clearly is the most talented debater among the candidates, and he could emerge as the leading conventional politician in the race, positioned to rise if the non-politician frontrunners falter, as many expect them to. Rubio’s neoconservative foreign policy views were on full display.
Trump: He seemed to be at pains to project a more subdued persona, with less bombast, fewer attacks on his opponents, and more genial politeness. Unlike Kasich and Fiorina, he didn’t seek to insert himself into the exchange with verbal elbows or go over his allotted time. He confined himself instead to simply raising his hand when he had something to say in response to an opponent. As in the past, he projected a rather unsophisticated debating style, with flights of enthusiasm often substituting for substance. But he hit the notes he wanted to hit, his supporters are by now well aware of his foibles and there was no reason to think he undercut his standing.
Carson: He remained the candidate with the disarming charm. But behind the smile was a capacity for toughness, as when he noted the disparity between what Hillary Clinton told her daughter on the night of the fatal Benghazi raid and what she told the American people afterward. “Where I came from,’’ he said, “they call that a lie.’’ Defending himself from reports questioning the veracity of some of his life story, he said, “People who know me know that I’m an honest person.’’
Cruz: Deft and articulate, he pushed to the right with his characteristic bluntness. He hit “the cronyism and corruption of Washington’’ particularly hard, and stated he would not bail out any big bank even if its collapse could threaten the economy and the financial standing of depositors. But he said the Federal Reserve’s role as lender of last resort should allay fears about the outcome (which seemed pretty close to a bailout, though Cruz insisted it wouldn’t be).
Fiorina: She demonstrated once again her debating skill and ability to articulate an argument with crispness and impact. She employs descriptive prose in expressing her anti-Washington sentiment and championing free-market entrepreneurialism. A tough neocon, she projected a strong interventionist outlook. She also demonstrated once again her zest in going after Hillary Clinton. If Clinton were to become president, said Fiorina, it would “corrode the character of this nation’’ because of what she considered Clinton’s lack of character.
Bush: The conventional wisdom among political insiders is that the former Florida governor hasn’t conducted much of a campaign thus far, and needed a strong showing in the debate to rekindle his political standing. Whether this is true is difficult to assess, given that early poll numbers based on debate performances often can be wildly off the mark. His Tuesday performance was certainly creditable, but whether it will boost his campaign—as campaigns are defined at this stage—remains an open question. He showed some spark at certain points in the debate but didn’t demonstrate an ability to project a strong image and articulate a message with consistent flair.
Kasich: He got particularly animated when going after Trump’s vow to deport America’s illegal immigrants. He also departed from most of his colleagues in warning that GOP attacks on the Federal Reserve, if carried to their logical conclusion, could undermine its independence. If currency stability and the money supply resided with Congress, he said, it would be a disaster (he’s right). He seemed the least animated on issues of Washington corruption and crony capitalism. Nothing he said or did in the debate seemed to alter his long-shot status.
Paul: He said he wants to see a much smaller government, “so small you can barely see it.” When asked about income inequality, he promptly blamed the Federal Reserve’s low-interest-rate policies. He explained his tax plan smoothly and in detail. But Paul lacked fire in the debate. Given widespread voter concerns about a federal government out of control and his own libertarian leanings, he seemed well positioned at the beginning of this contest to exploit that sentiment. And his opposition to expansive interventionism—for example, a no-fly zone in Syria—would seem to be consonant with voter weariness with the country’s long and undistinguished adventures in the Middle East since the 9/11 attacks on the homeland. But thus far, Paul has seemed to lack the verve and verbal punch to exploit those sentiments successfully. The debate was no exception.
Robert W. Merry is a contributing editor at The National Interest and an author of books on American history and foreign policy.
Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore