First debates are always interesting: they provide candidates the opportunity to speak directly to each other, and provide contrasts that will begin to separate them in the minds of voters during the early run-up to primary season. The first prime time Republican debate of the 2016 election season was no exception: moderators Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly, and Chris Wallace did a good job highlighting candidates’ positions counter to the dominant narratives in Republican politics: Jeb Bush spoke about education reform and his support of national standards. Chris Christie talked about prosecuting terrorists. Marco Rubio talked about a new Republican Party.
With the first debate behind us, a few moments stand out as having the power to seriously differentiate select Republican hopefuls as they continue their campaigns, for better or worse.
Donald Trump on Running as an Independent; Rand Paul’s Response
Everyone’s favorite maverick businessman started the night off on a note of divisiveness, by failing to pledge that he wouldn’t run as an independent candidate should he lose the Republican primary. Trump said that he would ideally run as a Republican, but for the crowd in Ohio, and viewers across the country, the remarks underlined a suspicion about Trump’s loyalty to his party. Rand Paul, whose came out swinging in the debates, accused Trump of operating in a political system in which money equates to power and opportunity:
Jeb Bush on Immigration
Jeb Bush is less vocally anti-illegal immigration than other Republican candidates, and this debate gave him the opportunity to explain his views fully. Responding to a statement he made in which he said undocumented immigrants were performing an “act of love… it’s an act of commitment to your family,” Bush defended his support of “earned legal status,” a rhetorical separation of the a-word, “amnesty,” which draws so much ire among conservative voters:
John Kasich on Marriage Equality
John Kasich, the clear hometown favorite among the debate’s live audience in Ohio, earned a surprising among of applause, perhaps, over his previously unarticulated support of couples in same-sex marriages, just four years after a gay soldier was booed at a Republican debate in 2012. Kasich articulated his deference to the Supreme Court ruling, and his moral and religious support of accepting the gay couples among his family and friends:
Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee debate Entitlement Reform
Chris Wallace pitted these two candidates against each other on Social Security, and rightly so. Christie is unique among Republicans for his support of phasing out Social Security payouts for those wealthy enough to be able to afford the loss, and Huckabee has stood hard against policies like those, arguing that doing so would be breaking a promise to workers who paid into the system. Huckabee countered by saying that a consumption tax — an additional sales tax to fund entitlements — would better ensure that everyone is invested the the future of entitlement spending, even those he said currently exploit the system.
This is a wedge issue among Republican primary voters, along age and philosophical lines. Surely, the debate over entitlement reform “fairness” will continue through the general election:
Rand Paul and Chris Christie debate the NSA
Capitalizing on another wedge issue among Republicans, Rand Paul has spoken publicly and at great length on the ills of too much state-sponsored data collection, saying it is Constitutionally dubious and threatening to Americans’ expectations of privacy. Christie, emphasizing his role as a prosecutor in the immediate post-9/11 years, said such views are dangerous and should be acknowledged as such:
Marco Rubio on Growing up paycheck to paycheck
Asked about Jeb Bush’s assertion that governor’s are held more politically responsible than legislators, Marco Rubio made an eloquent case for his own qualifications, especially against the probable Democratic nominee. “If this election is a resume competition, then Hillary Clinton is going to be the next president,” he reminded the stage. “If I am our nominee, how is Hillary clinton going to lecture me about living paycheck to paycheck?” he continued. “I was raised paycheck to paycheck.”
Ben Carson’s Closing Statement
Carson won the audience over with what seemed like a reliable stump speech joke about brain surgery and Washington D.C. While Carson seemed cautious throughout most of the night and was at one point directly asked about slip ups in his political knowledge, he left the stage on a good note.