Last night saw the fourth debate among the contenders for the Republican Party nomination for president. Two things distinguished it from the previous three: there were only eight candidates on stage (the previous debates had 10 or 11) and sharper divisions among the candidates on policy came to light, rather than ad hominem attacks.
One of these moments came toward the end of the debate, when the subject of the bank bailouts of the 2008-2009 crisis came up. The bailouts were and remain deeply unpopular politically, especially with anti-government GOP primary voters, despite the fact that they originated under the Bush Administration (a fact that many conservatives either forgot or willfully ignore). The bailouts may have been necessary to avert a cataclysmic depression, yet they attracted the wrath of millions of Americans suffering from the economic crisis and galvanized the nascent Tea Party movement. At any rate, Senator Ted Cruz and Ohio Governor John Kasich squared off over the idea of bailing out a failing bank. Cruz contended that, as president, he’d let the banks fail, while Kasich took umbrage to this and painted himself (or attempted to) as a pragmatist who wouldn’t let anti-interventionist ideology prevent him from acting decisively to save the economy, admitting (to boos from the audience) that he would bail out a bank to save the people with savings accounts. The Cruz-Kasich spat, probably better than any other, represents the conflict within the GOP of more moderate candidates interested in a broad appeal and winning a general election and ideologues who adhere to a conservative party line and whose chances in a general election would rely on turning out the conservative base or miraculously converting independents.
This conflict is also present in the debate between candidates like Governor Jeb Bush and Donald Trump over immigration. Kasich waded into this issue last night (there was a trend of Kasich interrupting others and inserting himself into the conversation, which didn’t endear him to conservatives too much but could benefit him if it gets enough attention nationwide and especially in New Hampshire) as well.
On foreign policy, though, some starker divisions became apparent, mostly between Senator Rand Paul and other candidates — specifically, Senator Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina, and Cruz. Rubio described Paul as a “committed isolationist,” while Paul characterized the Florida senator’s plan to expand tax credits for families and boost defense spending as inimical to a truly fiscally conservative. Bigger disputes cropped up over questions like Middle Eastern intervention and how to deal with Russia. Again, Paul drew the sharpest distinctions with the rest of the field: he pointed out (correctly!) that imposing a no-fly zone in Syria today means two things:
-The U.S. asks President Vladimir Putin of Russia very politely to pull back the Russian air force so that it can impose a no-fly zone, or
-The more likely outcome of the U.S. starts shooting down Russian warplanes.
Fiorina made some of the more reckless comments, saying that she wouldn’t speak to Russia at all while she ramped up the U.S. Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean, conducted military exercises in the Baltics, and other assorted moves that wouldn’t do much to deter Russian maneuvers in Ukraine or Syria but would continue to worsen relations with the world’s second-most powerful country.
The long, drawn-out primary season is finally entering the time where the party will have to address its internal divisions. Candidates will start to drop out — I’m not sure why Governor Bobby Jindal is in the race at all, to be honest — and the sort of “lanes” that different candidates are attempting to claim (think Cruz angling for the Tea Party or evangelical vote, or Kasich or Bush wooing the moderate, pro-business wing) will start to condense into one candidate or so. Once the primaries and caucuses begin with Iowa, this process will accelerate, and the ideological lines in 2016 will become clear.