The Republican field split sharply on the question of how to handle the Islamic State and Russia in Tuesday night’s fourth major GOP debate, with Donald Trump calling for the United States to stay out of more confrontations – and other candidates blasting him for advocating showing weakness.
“If Putin wants to go and knock the hell out of ISIS, I am all for it,” Trump said, noting that he had met Russian President Vladimir Putin through a “60 Minutes” episode. Trump expressed weariness about the troubles U.S. interventions had run into in Iraq and Libya. He also said the United States should not get involved militarily against the Islamic State, and instead let other countries in the region take the lead. “They say, ‘Keep going. Keep going, you dummies,’ ” Trump said. “We can’t continue to be the policeman of the world.”
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush responded that Trump was misunderstanding how both Putin and the Islamic State see the world. “That’s like a board game. That’s like playing monopoly, that’s not how the world works,” he said.
That set off one of the most substantive exchanges of any Republican debate so far, which demonstrated a broad disagreement within the Republican field. Former tech executive Carly Fiorina was among those calling for a more aggressive foreign policy, using both troops and diplomatic rebukes. She stepped in to criticize Trump for being naïve about the danger Putin posed, and said she herself would not talk to Putin right away. Although she said she had met him before: “Not in a green room for a show, but for a private meeting.”
Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), a libertarian-leaning candidate who was having his strongest debate so far, joined Trump in calling for more restraint in U.S. military interventions overseas. He criticized other candidates for calling for a U.S.-enforced “no-fly zone” in the region. “You can be strong without being involved in every civil war around the world,” Paul said.
At one point, Fiorina interrupted. Trump tried to shush her: “Why does she keep interrupting everybody?”
The audience booed.
Later, Cruz and Kasich sparred about what they would have done if faced with the possibility that an enormous bank would fail. Cruz said he would not bail out the banks, as the federal government did during the financial crisis that began in 2008. Kasich said Cruz was showing he wasn’t ready to be an executive.
“When a bank is ready to go under, and depositors are ready to lose their life savings, you just don’t say, ‘We believe in philosophical concerns,’ ” Kasich said. He continued: “I’ve got to tell you, on-the-job training for president of the United States doesn’t work” – a jab that Cruz was as unprepared for the job as President Obama had been in 2009.
Cruz saw an opening. “So you would bail them out?” he said. That was a hard question for Kasich, since the bailout is deeply unpopular among many fiscal conservatives.
Kasich responded with a relatively vague promise to work out a plan, rather than simply repeating the same bailout that occurred back then. “You’ve got to deal with it. You can’t turn a blind eye to it,” Kasich said.
In general, Tuesday’s debate was one of the most lively and substantive of the primary season so far, with candidates delving deeply into their plans for taxes and spending. Moderators seemed in command of the facts behind their questions, and allowed arguments to run on – at one point, a moderator ignored the network’s own go-to-commercial music so that a back-and-forth could continue. The night’s main debate also featured standout performances by two candidates who sorely needed them: Bush and Paul. Some of the more prominent candidates in the polls took a back seat: Trump and Carson played minor roles, Rubio found himself on the defensive, and Sen. Ted Cruz stayed out of the major back-and-forths.
Cruz’s most memorable moment might have been a mistake, in which he veered close to the error that undid fellow Texan Rick Perry in 2011. Cruz said he planned to cut five major agencies: the Departments of Commerce and Energy, the IRS, the Department of Commerce, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Commerce was in there twice, but nobody called him on it.
Earlier in the evening, Paul had attacked Rubio as a big spender who would put the country deeper into debt with new benefits and military spending, in one of the sharpest moments of the debate.
Paul, who had been largely invisible in the debates up to that point, suddenly took on Rubio, saying that when he added up Rubio’s tax plan and his military plans, “You get something that looks to me not very conservative.”
Rubio, whose best moment in these debates was a comeback, replied with an attack on Paul’s national security record.
“I know that Rand is a committed isolationist,” he said. “I’m not.”
Paul continued on the attack, casting himself in a role that he had seemed reluctant to play in the past. He was the one Republican who would argue that the U.S. could possibly spend too much on national defense.
“Can you be a conservative, and be liberal on military spending?” he asked.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, one of the lower-polling candidates on the main stage in the fourth Republican debate, also attacked Trump for advancing a “silly argument” about deporting 11 million illegal immigrants.
“Come on, folks, we all know you can’t pick them up and ship them back across the border. It’s a silly argument. It’s not an adult argument,” Kasich said, in one of the most direct challenges to Trump in this debate so far.
Trump responded by citing deportations – done on a smaller scale – under Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s. “We have no choice,” Trump said. “We have no choice.”
When Kasich continued to press Trump, the billionaire responded with disdain: Trump said he runs a huge company. “I don’t have to hear from this man. Believe me,” he said. The crowd in the audience booed – showing a kind of disapproval that past debate crowds had usually reserved for the moderators.
Bush also rejected Trump’s call for deportations, saying it hurt the party’s ability to reach out to mainstream audiences: “They’re doing high-fives in the Clinton campaign right now when they hear this.”
Immigration was a dominant issue in the early going of the debate. Cruz jumped in to oppose Bush’s plan, calling it “amnesty.” He joked that party elites and the mainstream media were easy on Bush because they don’t feel the economic threat that immigrants pose to working-class Americans. If people were coming across the Rio Grande with journalism degrees, Cruz said, the American media would suddenly see immigration as a major problem.
The debate began shortly after 9 p.m. with three candidates saying they oppose efforts to raise the minimum wage because they believe it would hurt low-wage workers more than it would help them.
“There is nothing that we do now to win. We don’t win anymore. … Taxes too high. Wages too high,” said Trump, adding that making the wage too high would hurt America’s ability to compete with overseas manufacturers. “I hate to say it, but we have to leave it the way it is.”
“Every time we raise the minimum wage, the number of jobless people increases,” said retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, saying the effect was particularly noticeable among African Americans.
“If you raise the minimum wage, you’re going to make people more expensive than a machine,” Rubio said.
In the early minutes of the debate, one voice missing was that of Bush, the former front-runner. At one point, he cut off Kasich, who seemed to be interrupting a question meant for Bush.
“You’ve already made two comments, John,” Bush said. “I got about four minutes last debate, I’m going to get my question this time.”
Bush then spoke about his desire to undo federal regulations, and blasted President Obama’s handling of the economy. “Hillary Clinton has said that Barack Obama’s policies get an A. Really?” Bush said, taking an aggressive tone, and focusing – unlike last time – on the leading Democrat in the race, not other Republicans. “It may be the best that Hillary Clinton can do. But it’s not the best that America can do.”
The debate began at 9 p.m. Eastern time on Fox Business Network. Earlier this evening, four lower-performing candidates met in the fourth “undercard” debate.
The earlier contest was dominated by a running argument between two low-performing candidates with vastly different plans to succeed. One was New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is aiming to attract moderate voters, and the other was Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal – who is trying to convince conservatives that moderates like Christie are untrustworthy sellouts.
Jindal, now consigned to the low-performers’ debate for the fourth time, was on the attack from the beginning of the debate. Christie, just relegated from the main stage, was an uncooperative target. Jindal repeatedly zinged Christie for being a “big-government Republican,” and at one point said he should get a “juice box” for participation in the conservative movement.
Christie, showing an uncharacteristic discipline in the face of annoyance, repeatedly said he was more interested in beating Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton than in battling with Jindal. Christie – a former federal prosecutor – used the verb “prosecute” repeatedly when describing how he could debate Clinton in the general election. “You need someone who’s going to stand up on that stage and prosecute the case against her,” he said. Christie also made an appeal to law enforcement officers, saying he would support them more than President Obama had in the roiling debate over police shootings and police brutality.
“I will have your back,” Christie said.
Christie also ended on a note of bipartisan hopes: “I will go to Washington. … To bring this entire country together for a better future for our children and grandchildren.”
The other two candidates on stage had less air time but still managed memorable moments. Former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.), describing his grudging admiration for hardball tactics employed by Democrats, shouted out the words “They fight!” It was the loudest moment of the night, though an odd message to leave people with.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who’s also been relegated from the main stage, once again defended federal “entitlement” programs like Medicare and Social Security, saying that Americans had paid into those programs and deserved to have them pay out. His most memorable moment, however, was a joke. When asked about Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, Huckabee responded like the folksy preacher he used to be: “Well, my wife’s name’s Janet. When you say Janet yellin’, I’m very familiar with what you mean.”
The main debate, featuring front-runners Donald Trump and Ben Carson, will begin at 9 p.m. Eastern.
At various points, Jindal called out Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) – though not by name – as all talk and no action. He called out Huckabee for being a big spender. And he zinged Christie, who had been the dominant figure in the debate’s first half, for doing too little to cut state spending.
“Let’s not be a second liberal party,” Jindal said, talking about Christie. “Let’s just not beat Hillary. Let’s elect a conservative to the White House, not just any Republican.”
Christie, for his part, did not rise to Jindal’s bait. Instead, he repeatedly cast himself as somebody who could appeal to moderates and win in blue states.
The most memorable moment for Santorum came when he tried to play off Jindal and Christie’s tension. He noted that one man claimed to be a true conservative, and the other said he could win in a blue state. Santorum raised his arms in a “Why not me?” gesture, a funny moment that indicated that he thought he combined both qualities.
Christie and Huckabee also spent time attacking the IRS and blaming the federal tax code for weakening manufacturing and America generally.
“First, make the tax code fairer, flatter and simpler,” said Christie. He described making the U.S. tax code so simple that individuals could file their taxes in 15 minutes. “I’ll be able to fire a whole bunch of IRS agents once we do that,” Christie said.
Huckabee went Christie one better and said that he’d eliminate the income tax entirely, and move to a “Fair tax,” essentially a national retail sales tax.
“We get rid of the IRS. We completely eliminate it. Because the government has no business knowing how much money we make, and how we make it … that’s none of their business,” Huckabee said.
Huckabee and Christie were dismissed from the main debate stage after not reaching the 2.5 percent threshold in national polls. They joined Jindal and Santorum, who have been in the low-performers’ debate all along.
These will be the smallest debates of the GOP election so far, after the organizers used poll numbers to winnow the field for both broadcasts.
That leaves eight candidates in the main event: billionaire Donald Trump, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), former Florida governor Jeb Bush, former tech executive Carly Fiorina, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.).
Two other candidates — former New York governor George Pataki and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) — were bumped from the undercard entirely after failing to reach a lower threshold of 1 percent in national polls. (Former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore, who appeared in the first undercard but not the next two, will again be kept off the stage because of low numbers). Graham, with a folksy charm and an aggressive call for greater military intervention, had been the dominant candidate in both of the last two undercards. It was not enough to raise his poll standing.
These debates come just 13 days after the last Republican debates, which were widely perceived as a disaster for their hosts at CNBC. Both the crowd and the candidates attacked the moderators for asking argumentative questions, and the moderators let the candidates get away with blatant dodging of the truth. Trump, for instance, claimed he hadn’t said something that was included in his own immigration policy paper. The moderator, who had been right, apologized.
Tuesday night’s main event will be moderated by Fox Business personalities Maria Bartiromo and Neil Cavuto. In an interview with The Washington Post, they said they aimed to do better — and that they wouldn’t put up with whining.
“I understand candidates getting annoyed, but they better be careful about looking like whiners and babies. I see this on the right and the left. I think you can ask very tough questions without coming off like an ass,” Cavuto said in an interview with Callum Borchers of The Fix. “I think it’s incumbent on us to know and appreciate the difference.”
Ahead of the debate, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus sent a letter to RNC members saying the committee has “worked tirelessly” with Fox to “fine-tune our debate process and ensure that our candidates have the best format and experience.”
“I am confident that we will finally have a debate focused on the economy and financial matters. The moderators tonight have also pledged to allow candidates 90 seconds to answer questions, rather than 60 seconds in past debates, as well as give each candidate a closing statement,” Priebus says in the letter, which was shared with The Washington Post by a Republican recipient.
Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton issued a prebuttal ahead of the debate in the form of an Internet video that accused Bush, Rubio and Trump of backing tax plans that disproportionately benefit the wealthy.
The last debate was a breakout moment for Rubio. He was attacked by Bush — an old ally of Rubio’s from their days in Florida politics — for missing many votes in the Senate.
Rubio responded with a deeply stinging cut-down: “The only reason why you’re doing [this] now is because we’re running for the same position, and someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you.”
Tuesday night’s debate could be a last stand for Bush, who came into the race as the well-funded front-runner and has never shown a fire to match his fundraising. If he does not look like a winner in Tuesday night’s debate, he may find it hard to carry on.
In the days leading up to the debate, Bush’s supporters warned that they were preparing to attack Rubio — in one case, casting him as too antiabortion to win in a general election. Even before the attacks came, Rubio’s supporters sought to raise money off them.
“How is that the kind of ‘joyful’ campaign that Jeb claimed he wanted to run?!?!” writes Rubio campaign manager Terry Sullivan in an e-mailed solicitation for campaign contributions. Sullivan was talking about Bush’s early promises to campaign “joyfully” and his references to himself as a “joyful tortoise.”
Tuesday night’s debate could also be a key moment for Carson, who has faced new questions about the way he tells his famous life story.
Carson, for instance, had claimed to have a “scholarship offer” from West Point but did not actually apply to the academy at all. Carson said he was talking about informal promises from military officials, made while he was a high-school ROTC cadet in Detroit.
Carson has also faced questions about the violent elements of his life story, including tales that he threatened his own mother with a hammer and tried to stab a friend with a knife. The candidate has said he has been subjected to an unfair level of scrutiny.
This will be the fourth debate in which Trump — the political outsider turned front-runner — has occupied the center podium. It is always hard to know what Trump will talk about. But one possibility is the “war on Christmas” and the new cups at Starbucks Coffee.
“Did you read about Starbucks?” Trump asked a crowd of about 10,200 during a rally at a convention center Monday evening in Springfield, Ill. “No more ‘Merry Christmas’ at Starbucks. No more.”
The crowd booed loudly.
Trump was talking about the new winter-season cup that the coffee giant unveiled for this year (in early November, when the modern Christmas season begins). In the past, the cup had emblems like snowflakes, fir trees, ornaments, sledders, snowmen and stars — not Jesus in the manger, exactly, but still more explicitly related to Christmas.
This year the cups are just red — which some Christians allege is the company taking the last bits of their holiday out of the season.
“Maybe we should boycott Starbucks,” Trump said, having reminded the crowd that the company is his tenant, at Trump Tower in New York. “I don’t know. Seriously. I don’t care. By the way: That’s the end of that lease. But who cares? Who cares? Who cares?!”
The debate was only a few hours away when Kasich, in a T-shirt and gym shorts, let off some steam by shooting some hoops with the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks.
Kasich said he was prepared to call out rival candidates – including Trump and Carson – for what he described as unreasonable policy proposals, as he did in last month’s debate.
“At the end, we want somebody who can land the plane, not someone who just talks about it,” he said.
Sean Sullivan, Jenna Johnson in Springfield, Ill., Philip Rucker in St. Francis, Wis., and Robert Costa in Milwaukee contributed to this report.