Debating the Debate: Applause Lines and Sharp Elbows

Cruz and Rubio take off the gloves. Trump embraces anger.

Three for the seesaw.

Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Thursday night's sixth Republican presidential debate among the seven leading candidates in North Charleston, South Carolina, was the next-to-last one before voters start choosing sides. No issue dominated but the contenders lost few opportunities to criticize one another and Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. They seemed to throw more sharp elbows than in the previous five rounds. Bloomberg View's Ramesh Ponnuru and Paula Dwyer compared notes.

Dwyer: Low wages are as much an issue with Republicans as with Democrats -- the "Obamaclinton" economy, as Ted Cruz calls it. He says millionaires and billionaires are doing well under Obama, but most households aren't, even though unemployment is down to 5 percent from 10 percent. He sounds like Bernie Sanders.

Ponnuru: I assume Republicans are going to hit hard on wage growth because it's the missing piece of this economy. Voters care about it -- it's probably why the economy has such poor ratings from them -- and even if they didn't, it's the best criticism of the Obama economic record Republicans have.

Dwyer: A lot of machismo is on display. The candidates are outraged that the Iranians seized two U.S. naval ships in the Persian Gulf Tuesday, even though the U.S. admitted the ships had strayed into Iranian waters because of faulty navigation equipment.  

Ponnuru: I think a lot of the Republicans have decided that Donald Trump is doing well because he seems tough, so they're all trying to out-tough each other. Then, too, Republicans genuinely think that the photo of Iranians boarding the boats was an outrage and the administration's reaction to it was weak. 

Dwyer: This is an election where "anger" seems to be the catchword.

Ponnuru: Trump had a good moment responding to Nikki Haley's criticism of his immigration views. Haley said that we shouldn't listen to the angriest voices. This was, in my mind, a foolish line of attack. The problem with Trump isn't that he is angry. A lot of voters believe they have legitimate grounds for anger. This gave Trump an opening: He defended the legitimacy of that anger effectively.

Dwyer: I agree you can't go wrong channeling the anger of frustrated voters this year. It's true on the left, too.

Ponnuru:  I enjoy how Cruz has basically backed Trump -- Trump! -- into saying that Cruz isn't being sensitive or respectful enough of the goodness and decency of New Yorkers after the 9/11 attacks. I thought Trump won that exchange. Cruz's comment -- that not a lot of conservatives come from Manhattan -- had a context that sailed over most people's heads. He was alluding to Trump's remarks that Cruz says he's an evangelical Christian, but that not a lot of evangelical Christians come from Cuba.

And Jeb Bush's asking Trump to reconsider his views on Muslim immigration played to Trump's strengths as well: Obviously, Trump's supporters are fine with his position, and he got to talk about how concerned he is about security. Then again, it got Bush some air time to say things that might appeal to a different segment of the party.

Dwyer: Trump says he's open to tariffs on Chinese imports to the U.S., though not the 45 percent the New York Times claims he backed in a recent editorial board meeting. Trump also says U.S. tariffs will force China to let its currency rise in value. I doubt the Chinese would cave like that. Rubio rightly warns that tariffs get passed on to the consumer. Rubio said he favors corporate tax reform over tariffs to make the economy stronger.

Ponnuru: I appreciate Rubio's making the correct points that a tariff would have negative effects on American consumers -- who include, I would note, American producers -- and that we would be better off improving our economic policies. It's possible, of course, that tariff threats would make China let its currency appreciate further than it already has -- but of course it also has the potential for worse outcomes, including retaliatory tariffs or just American tariffs that weaken our economy.

Dwyer: And Cruz talks up his flat tax proposal, which would relieve companies of income taxes on profits, as an alternative to tariffs on Chinese imports. 

Ponnuru: The case against what he's arguing is made well here by a colleague of mine at the American Enterprise Institute. I would add that I think it's a mistake to make a reduced trade deficit a goal of economic policy. When the border tax fails to achieve it, what will be Cruz's argument for not taking more drastic measures?

Dwyer: Ben Carson, who also has a flat-tax proposal, wants to get into this too.

Ponnuru: Carson is such a non-factor  that the absurdity of his tax plan hasn't gotten much attention. That plan would tax labor income at a lower level for high earners than low earners, which is just not going to happen. The more interesting debate is the one between Cruz and Rubio. I don't know how many voters followed it -- I've been obsessed with this topic myself -- but I think Rubio won it. Cruz's support for the value-added tax is the only policy issue where I think he has a real vulnerability in the primaries, and Rubio is smart to hit him on it.

Dwyer: Rubio also scored points by pointing out that Cruz's 16 percent flat tax would be paid both by consumers on their purchases and by companies on the wages they pay employees, thus raising prices and lowering wages. Rubio also won when he said Ronald Reagan looked at a VAT tax and found that enforcement would require 20,000 new IRS agents, while Cruz claims he'd get rid of the IRS with a similar tax plan. A simple, one-rate flat tax with fewer IRS agents polls well, but a flat tax isn't simple. 

Ponnuru: I think it's a win just to call attention to the fact that Cruz's plan includes a) a hidden tax that b) is kind of European. 

Dwyer:  Did Rubio feel he had to come on strong at the end of the debate, because he worried he hadn't been forceful enough?  

Ponnuru: I thought Trump and Cruz dominated the opening segments but Rubio jumped in very effectively later on -- and I think won most of his exchanges with Cruz, though not all of them. (Rubio woke up to the possibility that terrorists might try to exploit our immigration system over the last two years?) Nobody else, I think, stood out. In previous debates there has sometimes been an everyone-vs.-Rubio dynamic; this time Cruz was the man in the middle.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the authors of this story:
    Ramesh Ponnuru at
    Paula Dwyer at

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Katy Roberts at

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.