The fourth Republican debate was a substantive affair that revealed real fractures within the party on big issues. On immigration, Jeb Bush went after Donald Trump, saying that to win, the GOP needs "practical" policies. Rand Paul challenged Marco Rubio on added government spending, asking, "Can you be a conservative and be liberal on military spending?" On Syria, Trump said he'll let Russian President Vladimir Putin take out ISIS; Rubio and Carly Fiorina responded with pleas for U.S. intervention. Bush, still wounded from his scuffle with Rubio, shifted his attacks to President Obama and Hillary Clinton. Rubio's finances didn't come up. Questions about Ben Carson's biography hardly registered. Three must-watch moments:
— Eyder Peralta/NPR
The fourth debate among the leading Republican candidates for president filled the historic Milwaukee Theatre with cheers, laughter and occasional boos, but it probably did not alter the dynamics among the eight featured contestants.
No one seemed to stumble or scintillate so notably as to change the pecking order with the first voting, now fewer than a dozen weeks away in the Iowa precinct caucuses.
Once again, the two-hour clash was a competition for the conservative mantle, with candidates advertising their stands on issues from the minimum wage to bank bailouts and tax policy. One of the sharpest areas of disagreement was the use of American military might overseas — whether to destroy ISIS or to counter the ambitions of Russia and China.
Several candidates talked of their plans for overhauling the tax code, all of which offered cuts in income tax rates, and some of which abolished payroll taxes and estates. Several embraced the concept of a flat tax, where all taxpayers would pay at the same rate regardless of income and where all deductions would be gone. All the candidates pledged to reduce the size and costs of the federal government, and some promised to "abolish the IRS" entirely.
As in the earlier debates, much of the limelight was absorbed by two senators, Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas. A third senator, Rand Paul of Kentucky, also had his moments, sounding more like his libertarian father, Ron Paul, than he has in previous debates. He was rewarded for this with both cheers and jeers from the energetic and vocal audience.
"Marco, Marco," Paul cried at one point, "what is conservative about spending another trillion dollars on a federal program without paying for it, or adding a trillion dollars to the military without paying for it?"
"We can't even have an economy if we're not safe," Rubio shot back. "We've got ISIS beheading people and crucifying Christians."
Businessman Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson were entitled to lecterns at center stage because they have continued to lead in the polls this month. But neither was a dominant element in the mix on this night. Carson spoke for nearly one minute less than any other candidate, keeping his answers short and making no effort to interrupt when others were talking.
His longest answer related to his recent controversies over stories in his various autobiographical writings and speeches. Carson said he did not mind being vetted by the media, but "what I do mind is being lied about." The audience applauded, and none of Carson's rivals took him on. The debate moderators did not follow up.
Neither did the subject of Rubio's financial miscues back in Florida get an airing by anyone on stage. The interviewing journalists were Maria Bartiromo and Neil Cavuto of Fox Business Network and Gerard Baker, editor-in-chief of the Wall Street Journal.
Perhaps the greatest difference between this and the preceding three GOP debates was the attitude of the moderators. Although some of their questions could be called probing, none was accusatory. Gone was the slightly contemptuous tone heard at times in earlier debates.
Cruz, who at the last debate delivered a jeremiad against "the liberal bias of the mainstream media," confined himself to asking how journalists would respond to illegal immigration if the new arrivals all had journalism degrees and wanted their jobs. "Then we would see the truth," Cruz said.
Answering the first question of the night, Carson said he would not support a raise in the federal minimum wage because it would kill jobs at the low end of the pay scale. At times in the past, Carson has seemed more ambivalent on the issue.
On this night, only Ohio Gov. John Kasich spoke up in favor of a "moderate increase" in the wage, and then at the state level. "My dad carried mail on his back," he said by way of explanation, "and my grandfather was a miner who died of black lung."
The tallest person on stage, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, handled his questions with aplomb and won audience approval in doing so. But he had no single moment of electric connection or rebuttal worthy of the highlight reel. Many of his answers read well in the transcript, through much of the evening he wore an expression that suggested impatience and discomfort.
Bush supported Kasich in a side debate they had with Trump over the idea of deporting 11 million people currently in the U.S. illegally. Trump continued to insist this would be practical, while Bush joined his Ohio colleague in ridiculing the idea.
Also frustrated at several points in the debate was Carly Fiorina, the former tech executive known for her salient and super-articulate sales pitches. At several junctures, she was able to tick off a catalog of countries in the Middle East — or of political leaders she has dealt with in that region. She trained her fire on Obamacare and on Hillary Clinton's tenure as secretary of state. She did not reprise the attack on Planned Parenthood that seemed to cost her altitude in the polls after an earlier debate.
Two candidates who had been part of the first three debates were not on hand for the main event. Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee, the current and former governors of New Jersey and Arkansas, respectively, failed to meet the 2.5 percent level of support in the past four national polls — the standard set by Fox Business Network and theWall Street Journal, the co-sponsors of the event.
Both appeared instead at the earlier, "undercard debate" alongside former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana. Two other candidates from earlier undercards, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and former New York Gov. George Pataki, failed to meet the lower 1 percent threshold of support and were not included in either debate.
— Ron Elving/NPR
Tuesday night's Republican debate focused on economic issues. NPR reporters look at candidate claims about business creation, the minimum wage, trade and the length of the tax code.
NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley on the health of the economy:
Republican candidates painted a fairly bleak picture of the U.S. economy during the debate, offering a litany of discouraged workers, sluggish economic growth and children living on food stamps.
"For the first time in 35 years, we have more businesses dying than starting," Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said.
The night's general theme, of course, was that this is an economy badly in need of a Republican makeover. And that data point on business creation, which Rubio has highlighted before, was also picked up by his fellow Floridian former Gov. Jeb Bush.
"We have to recognize that small business — right now more of them are closing than are being set up," Bush said.
That certainly was true in the early years of the Obama administration, which coincided with the Great Recession. But according to the latest figures from the Census Bureau, in 2012 and 2013 more businesses opened their doors than closed.
That fits a pattern with a lot of economic statistics: Things are better than they were but still not where we'd like them to be. So a question facing voters in the general election is whether they want to stay the course in hopes of further improvement or whether they think it's time to change direction.
NPR political reporter Danielle Kurtzleben on minimum wage:
The minimum wage is traditionally a hot-button political and economic subject, and it came up again Tuesday night.
"People need to be educated on the minimum wage," candidate Ben Carson said. "Every time we raise the minimum wage the number of jobless people increases."
Carson opposes a higher federal minimum wage. This is, by the way, a flip-flop for him. In May, Carson said it probably should be raised from its current level of $7.25.
But does the number of jobless people grow every time the minimum wage is raised?
Economic data show that sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't.
The question going forward, though, is whether a higher minimum wage would hurt job creation.
That's tougher to answer. In a 2013 University of Chicago survey, top economists were nearly evenly split on whether a $9 wage would hurt lower-wage workers.
Some studies, including a 2014 paper by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, have found that a higher minimum wage could cost jobs. But plenty of other studies have found minimal effects.
However, the moderators specifically asked about the impact of a $15 federal minimum wage, more than twice the current level. That's a much bigger hike than studies usually deal with, and many economists agree a nationwide hike that high could hurt job creation, especially in places where wages and prices are currently low.
NPR business reporter Jim Zarroli on the TPP:
Candidate Donald Trump claims the United States gets taken advantage of by other countries because, as he says, President Obama doesn't know how to negotiate.
Last night, Trump talked in particular about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, a trade pact involving the U.S. and 11 other Pacific Rim countries. It has yet to be approved by Congress.
"It is a deal that is going to lead to nothing but trouble," he said. "It's a deal that was designed for China to come in as they always do through the back door and totally take advantage of everyone."
Trump said China is guilty of currency manipulation by keeping the value of its currency low to make its exports more competitive.
Trump said the TPP fails to address currency manipulation. There is a side agreement in which all signatory nations promise not to manipulate their currencies, but critics say it's unenforceable. And Trump is correct that it is not part of the treaty itself.
But Trump's charge that China is manipulating its currency is outdated. China's currency, the yuan, has been rising in value for some time and the International Monetary Fund says it's now fairly valued.
In any case, China isn't a signatory to the TPP, at least right now.
Danielle Kurtzleben adds this kicker on the tax code:
There was lots of talk last night about the length of the federal tax code.
"Innovation and entrepreneurship," said candidate Carly Fiorina, "is crushed by the crushing load of a 73,000-page tax code."
Fiorina appears to be referring to the CCH Standard Federal Tax Reporter, which is published by a company based in the Netherlands called Wolters Kluwer. Its 2013 edition runs almost 74,000 pages. But it includes proposed regulations and other materials that are not part of the tax code.
The Internal Revenue Code is much shorter. A PDF I downloaded from the U.S. House of Representatives site is just shy of 6,500 pages.
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