Cruz, Rubio Join Fray Over Defense, Banks at Republican Debate: Tale of the Tape

GOP Hopefuls Talk Taxes, Economy at Milwaukee Debate
  • Republican identity crisis highlighted as immigration debated
  • Bush shows signs of life as Carson sidesteps personal question

The Republican party’s presidential identity crisis -- establishment versus outsider, pro-immigration versus anti-immigration -- played out in Tuesday’s debate in Milwaukee, less than 12 weeks from the first voting in Iowa.

For the second debate in a row, Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Texas Senator Ted Cruz put in the strongest performances, with Rubio in particular offering poised and polished answers on topics from taxes to immigration to wages.

The frontrunners, real-estate mogul Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, did little to cement their positions atop the polls, though Carson deftly sidestepped questions about his personal story. And former Florida Governor Jeb Bush showed signs of life but fell short of the standout performance he likely needs to catapult ahead. The moderators had a better night, steering clear of questions that led to a Republican revolt against CNBC in the last debate.

Here are the key fights that came to define the night.

Banking Debate

The candidates slammed the Dodd-Frank Act -- the government’s response to the 2008 financial crisis -- and Cruz, asked if he would intervene to assist a big financial firm on the brink of collapse, said he wouldn’t help institutions like Bank of America Corp. if they were going under.

“I’ll give you an answer, absolutely not,” Cruz said during the debate, sponsored by Fox Business Network and the Wall Street Journal.

Cruz said he agrees with Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, a Vermont senator, that wrongdoers on Wall Street should be prosecuted. The Texas senator said the Federal Reserve could be a lender of last resort, but that only if it was offering a loan at a high interest rate, not a bailout.

That drew a rebuke from Ohio Governor John Kasich, a former managing director at Lehman Brothers, who said the government couldn’t turn a “blind eye” to those who lose their savings in a major banking collapse. Kasich said he would make it a priority to help those who could least afford to lose their assets -- although he made no mention of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which insures deposits up to $250,000.

Bush said he would scrap Dodd-Frank and replace it with more stringent requirements for how much capital banks must hold on their balance sheets.

“If you created higher capital requirements, that’s the solution to this,” Bush said, calling Dodd-Frank a “vast overreach.”

The biggest banks are more concentrated since the financial crisis. But Dodd-Frank also raised capital requirements for the largest institutions.

Rubio expanded on that, accusing Wall Street of “going around bragging about it. We are so big, we are so important, that if we get in trouble, the government has to bail us out.”

Both Rubio and Cruz said complex government regulations favor bigger banks over smaller institutions.

“You know why these banks are so big?” Rubio said. “The government made them big by adding thousands and thousands of pages of regulations.”

Minimum Wage

As thousands of fast-food workers across the country gathered Tuesday to demand a higher minimum wage, Republican presidential candidates on a stage in Milwaukee had a warning for them: boosting pay would kill jobs.

Trump’s response to a question about raising the minimum wage may come back to haunt him. The U.S. economy is suffering because “wages are too high,” he said.

Carson said he doesn’t support raising the minimum hourly wage because every time the government mandates an increase unemployment goes up.

Maybe not. Research by John Bates Clark Medal winner David Card and economist Alan Krueger found no correlation between a rise in the minimum wage and increased unemployment. And the White House, which has advocated an increase in the minimum wage, has circulated a letter signed by seven Nobel Prize winners that found there was little evidence that the minimum wage has had a negative effect on the employment of minimum-wage workers, even during periods of economic weakness.

Rubio offered the most nuanced response on the point. He said that while his parents weren’t well educated, they worked hard and were able to afford a home in a safe neighborhood. The problem, Rubio said, is that the “economy is not providing jobs that pay enough.”

Rubio said raising the minimum wage would make people more expensive to employ than machines. He pivoted to urge more vocational training.

“Welders make more money than philosophers,” Rubio said. “We need more welders than philosophers.”

Job Math

The economy was the main topic for the debate and that opened the door to some interpretive math.

Bush’s contention that one in 10 workers have given up on looking for a job may be an exaggeration. He’s probably alluding to the underemployment rate, which was 9.8 percent in October.

This rate includes the 7.9 million Americans who don’t have jobs, but are still actively looking for work. It also includes another 7 million who are working part-time involuntarily and would prefer to be working full-time.

Those who are truly discouraged and think job prospects are so bleak that they aren’t even looking for work, totaled 665,000 last month, which would amount to about 0.4 percent of the labor force (if they were in the labor force).

Bush was on the mark when talking about the number of people on food stamps, which has risen from where it was before President Barack Obama was elected. According to the Census Bureau, the rate of children living with married parents who receive food stamps has doubled since 2007. In 2014, an estimated 16 million children, or about one in five, received food stamp assistance compared with the roughly 9 million children, or one in eight, that received this form of assistance prior to the recession.

Immigration Divide

One of the starkest divides of the night emerged over undocumented immigrants, with candidates taking moderate positions accusing those with a hard-line approach of offering plans that are unrealistic and politically damaging.

Three candidates -- Bush, Rubio and Kasich -- said the party should find a way to deal with immigrants already in the U.S. into some legal status, not send them home. Kasich said threats to deport the nearly 12 million immigrants in the country illegally are ridiculous and inhumane.

“We can’t ship 11 million people out of this country,” Kasich said. “Children would be terrified. It would not work.”

Bush said mass deportations would go against “American values” and that Republicans risked handing the election to Democrats if they kept hard-line positions on immigration. Democrats hope to capitalize with Hispanic voters in key states like Florida and Colorado who oppose the Republicans’ approach.

“They’re doing high fives in the Clinton campaign right now when they hear this,” Bush said.

The criticism was met with swift and persistent rebuttals from Trump, who has called for building a wall on the Mexican border and for rounding up and deporting undocumented immigrants and Cruz, who said Democrats are laughing because if Republicans joined Democrats as the party of amnesty, they would lose.

“We’re tired of being told its anti-immigrant. It’s offensive,” Cruz said, adding that every nation secured its borders.

And Cruz was able to get in a swipe against the media, always popular with a Republican audience.

“It would be different if a bunch of people with journalism degrees were coming over and driving down wages in the press,” Cruz quipped.

Carson’s Story

Questions about Carson’s biography have dominated the headlines in recent days, but the candidate’s ability to effectively quash discussion of the issue during the debate was a victory for his campaign.

“Thank you for not asking me what I said in the 10th grade. I appreciate that,” Carson said to moderator Neil Cavuto of Fox Business Network, drawing a laugh from the crowd.

“I have no problem with being vetted,” Carson said. “What I do have a problem with is being lied about.”

As Carson has risen in the polls, media reports have revisited his accounts of acts of violence as a child, a key part of the redemption story he discusses on the campaign trail. Carson has refused to identify two people he said he attempted to stab and beat with a baseball bat.

Carson has also repeatedly said and written he was offered a “full scholarship” to West Point, but was not actually admitted to the school. The school is free to attend for anyone accepted. Carson said he attended a banquet where top military officials said they were impressed with him and that they would be able to get him a full ride to the military academy.

But rather than getting bogged in those details, Carson instead parlayed a question about whether the issues were dragging on his campaign into criticism of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s handling of the 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya.

Carson said Clinton, the leading Democratic presidential candidate, had lied when she issued a statement in the aftermath of the attack mentioning an inflammatory video, despite sending an e-mail to her family suggesting a link to terrorism.

“Where I come from, they call that a lie,” Carson said to applause. “I think that’s very different from somebody misinterpreting what I said.”

Defense Spending

Rubio solidified his reputation as a strong debater during an extended back and forth with Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky over defense spending.

The exchange started when Paul blasted Rubio’s economic plan as not “fiscally conservative” because it included a trillion-dollar expenditure on defense. Rubio was ready with a quick rebuttal.

“I know Rand is a committed isolationist,” Rubio said. “I’m not.”

Paul tried to laugh off the swipe, but the loud applause in the room underscored the vulnerable position he’s in among a hawkish Republican electorate.

Rubio went on to argue that the country couldn’t “even have an economy if we’re not safe.”

Cruz and Trump both said additional military spending is necessary.

“You think defending our country is expensive?” Cruz said. “Try not defending it.”

Paul was undeterred, saying that the national debt posed security risks to the U.S. And he questioned how it was staying true to conservative principles to borrow for military expenditures.

“I want a strong national defense, but I don’t want our country to be bankrupt,” Paul said.

Eliminating Commerce

Texas politicians might want to steer away from naming federal agencies they’d eliminate.

In a moment that recalled former Texas Governor Rick Perry’s brutal “oops” gaffe from four years ago, Cruz rattled off five federal agencies he would eliminate.

“Today, we rolled out a spending plan,” Cruz said. “$500 billion in specific cuts. Five major agencies that I would eliminate. The IRS, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Energy, the Department of Commerce, and HUD.”

While Cruz may view the Commerce Department as doubly worthy of the ax, thanks to his website we know that the Education Department is the fifth cabinet agency he wants to cut. To Cruz’s credit, the moment lacked the awkward pause and stammering when Perry couldn’t remember that he wanted to strike the Energy Department.

Cruz also got a little breathing space from Rubio, who just moments later had a slip of his own when talking about keeping the family as the top priority.

“The most important job any of us will ever do is the job of being a president,” Rubio said. The Florida senator meant to say “parent.”

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