The theme of Wednesday night’s GOP presidential debate, hosted by CNBC, was ostensibly the economy, but the 10 Republican candidates who met for the third time were often too preoccupied with throwing lobs at one another and the mainstream media to answer to the the finer points of their tax and spending plans.
Indeed, the prime time event, held at the University of Colorado at Boulder, appeared to veer toward anarchy as the remaining contenders for the White House, feeling the pressure to perform with only three months remaining before the first votes are cast, took shots at one another and the debate moderators.
Despite their positions leading the pack, business mogul Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson turned in understated performances, often receding into the background, while Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was believed to have a stand-out night, dispensing with criticisms about his voting record and delivering jabs at his opponents and Democrats. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush once again appeared tepid on stage in what was billed as a make-or-break moment for his campaign.
The GOP race is a stark contrast to the Democratic field, where Hillary Clinton has strengthened her standing as the clear front-runner. Campaigning in New Hampshire Wednesday, she said the GOP debates are like a “reality TV show, but the cast of characters are out of touch with actual reality.”
A few exchanges, nonetheless, demonstrated where the GOP candidates found common ground, where they have sharp disagreements and how well their teams have crunched the numbers on their economic policies.
Bashing the mainstream media
Even more than attacking one another and the Democrats, the Republican contenders on Wednesday seemed to thrive on criticizing the media and the CNBC moderators asking the questions.
“The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,” said Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas near the outset of the event. “This is not a cage match. And if you look at the questions: Donald Trump, are you a comic book villain? Ben Carson, can you do math? John Kasich, will you insult two people over here? Marco Rubio, why don’t you resign? Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen? How about talking about the substantive issues?”
Rubio soon got in on the action, as he made accusations of liberal bias against a Florida paper that recently called for his resignation on account of his weak voting record in the Senate and the CNBC moderator who questioned him about his poor personal finances.
Later, responding to Trump’s assertion that super PACs were endangering the democracy, Rubio shot back, “Democrats have the ultimate super PAC. It’s called the mainstream media,” earning him extended applause from Republicans in the audience.
Fantasy vs. reality
As the candidates bandied about the numbers for their tax, entitlement and job-growth plans, their math was frequently called into question. Some candidates nevertheless managed to wave off the additional scrutiny.
When Carson, recently surging in national and state polls, was asked about why his tax plan — which proposes an approximately 15 percent flat tax and would result in a $2 trillion deficit by CNBC’s calculations — Carson answered, “When we put all the facts down, you will be able to see that it’s not true. It works out very well.”
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, however, expressed his frustration with his opponent's proposals, which he characterized as “fantasy.”
“To talk about we’re just going to have a 10 percent pie, and that’s how we’re going to fund the government? And we’re going to just fix everything with waste, fraud and abuse? Or that we’re just going to be great? Or we’re going to ship 10 million people out of this country, leaving their children here and dividing families?” Kasich said, in an apparent reference to Carson’s economic plan and Trump’s immigration proposal. “Folks, we’ve got to wake up. We cannot elect somebody that doesn’t know how to do the job.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee tussled over realistic plans for preserving Medicare and Social Security programs for senior citizens. While Huckabee said benefits should be preserved for those who have been paying into the system for decades, Christie said reform was urgently needed to keep the programs solvent.
“This is a matter not of math — this is a matter of morality,” Huckabee said. “If this country does not keep its promise to seniors, then what promise can this country hope to be trusted to keep?”
Christie argued that the Social Security trust fund would be insolvent in the next decade and the responsible course of action was to tell seniors that the funds they had paid into the system had already been spent.
“We need to get realistic about this, and we’re not,” he said. “The only way to keep our promise to seniors is start by following the first rule we should all follow, which is to look at them, treat them like adults, and tell them the truth. It isn’t their money anymore.”
Many of the candidates on the stage were united in their opposition to the bipartisan budget deal negotiated this week between Congressional Republicans and the White House that raises the debt ceiling and averts a government shutdown while striking compromises on spending for various programs.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul vowed to filibuster the bill on the Senate floor on Thursday and went so far as to say debt ceiling hikes should be leveraged to push through government reforms — despite the fact that breaching the limit could severely damage the global economy.
Cruz was predictably a naysayer, criticizing his own party’s leadership for agreeing to negotiate.
“Look, this deal in Washington is an example of why Washington is broken. Republican leadership joined with every single Democrat to add $80 trillion to our debt to do nothing to fix the problems,” he said.
Even Bush, who four years ago said he would accept a tax increase for spending cuts that were ten times as large, seemed to hedge those comments, criticizing the current deal on the table.
When pressed, Bush rejoined, “You find a Democrat that’s for cutting spending $10, I’ll give them a warm kiss.”
...and the undercard
The four lowest-polling candidates participated in an earlier undercard event: South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former New York Gov. George Pataki. None have gotten close to breaking into the upper tier of candidates.
All of them took shots at Clinton and her rival Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont; Graham had the sharpest aim.
“Good God, look who we're running against,” Graham said. “The No. 1 candidate on the other side thought she was flat broke after her and her husband were in the White House for eight years. The No. 2 guy went to the Soviet Union on his honeymoon, and I don't think he ever came back.”
With wire services