It’s not saying much, but Tuesday’s Republican debate in Milwaukee was the most substantive discussion by the candidates so far.
The Fox moderators started with the minimum wage and moved on to income inequality and regulating the banks, in questions that could have been scripted by Bernie Sanders.
The candidates pretty much stuck to their alternate reality on economics. (In one surreal sequence, former Lehman Brothers’s employee John Kasich hotly debated Ted Cruz, whose wife works for Goldman Sachs, on curbing the big banks. Carly Fiorina, who laid off 30,000 employees when she was CEO of Hewlett-Packard, cut in to assert her bona fides on “saving jobs.”)
The most interesting moments came when Rand Paul and John Kasich challenged the other candidates on two off-topic points: curbing U.S. militarism and the limits of aggression toward immigrants here in the United States.
“Think about the children!” Kasich yelled at Donald Trump—not an applause line in the GOP debate crowd. But the audience actually booed Trump as he stuck to his insistence that 11 million undocumented immigrants should be torn from their families and deported on the spot. And Jeb Bush jumped on board the rationality express, pointing out that Trump’s mass deportation plan is impractical, and, more importantly to his party, immigrant-bashing is destroying the Republican brand. “They’re doing high-fives in the Clinton campaign now,” thanks to all the anti-immigrant talk among Republicans, Bush said.
(“We actually are doing high-fives right now,” Clinton’s press secretary, Brian Fallon, tweeted.)
In another great moment, Paul challenged his fellow Republicans on whether unlimited military spending is a legitimate conservative ideal.
“How is it conservative to add a trillion dollars in military expenditures?” Paul said to Marco Rubio. “Can you be conservative and be liberal on military spending?”
And Paul urged Fiorina, after she called for a no-fly zone in Iraq, to “realize that means you are saying we are going to shoot down Russian planes. If you’re ready for that, be ready to send your sons and daughters to another war in Iraq . . . I’m not happy about them flying over there. But I’m not naïve enough to say, well, Iraq has them flying over their airspace, we’re just going to announce that we’re shooting them down.”
That kind of chest-beating, Paul added, is “something you might hear in junior high school.”
And speaking of junior high school, Paul jumped on Trump to point out that China is not part of the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal, as Trump seemed to believe it was.
Fox commentators declared Rubio and Fiorina the debate’s winners, and derided talk of regulating banks as “incoherent.”
But Paul and Kasich were the real standouts, for injecting a dose of reality into fact-free reality television series of Republican debates so far.