The 5th Republican presidential debate, held Tuesday in Las Vegas and broadcast by CNN, could legitimately be dubbed “fight night.” The debate featured the usual name calling, personal attacks, and fact-abuse as the previous debates. As expected, minor candidates, like Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina, engaged in tough talk hoping to keep their meager support in the polls so they will be invited to take up time at the next debate.
Most pundits predicted that Donald Trump and Ted Cruz would duke it out. They didn’t. Trump said in an interview that he did not attack because Cruz was the only one who stood with him when everyone else was attacking him. In fact, Trump showed a new demeanor. He was calm, slightly more specific about issues, and less-combative, except for one exchange with Jeb Bush. At a rally in Mesa, Arizona Wednesday, Trump pointed out that eleven post-debate media polls showed that he won the debate.
Instead of a Cruz-Trump shoot out, the debate featured multiple exchanges between Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. This was inevitable because they are running second and third in most polls. To overtake Trump, one of them needs to take out the other. The two senators went after each other on national security, immigration, and other issues. They probably fought to a draw.
The debate also showed a more energetic and combative side of Jeb Bush who seems to be the only candidate willing to take on Donald Trump. Bush called Trump the “chaos candidate.” Chris Christie responded saying Trump was a “serious candidate.” Christie was supposed to be the establishment candidate if Bush stumbles. Many thought he was the anti-Trump. The New Jersey governor chose instead to resort to tough talk of his own and avoided picking a fight with the front runner.
This debate delved deeper into issues than earlier debates and this exposed the major differences between the Republican candidates on the issues. As was expected, most of the debate focused on fear and national security following the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. Each candidate tried to demonstrate that they would make the best commander-in-chief. Much of the time was taken up with talk about ISIS, Islam, and Donald Trump’s recent call for banning Muslims from entering the United States. The NSA’s collection of Meta data also reared its head in the debate.
Also, the debate focused on immigration and refugees. The candidates attacked each other over immigration, each saying they would be tougher at stopping “illegal immigrants,” and dealing with the 11.5 million undocumented immigrants who are already here. Ted Cruz said he would build a wall on the border and get Trump to pay for it. Nearly all said they were against admitting Syrian or other refugees.
Unexpectedly, on foreign policy, candidates were divided into two camps: Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Reagan was a Cold War president and, as with all cold war presidents before him, his foreign policy meant avoiding military confrontation with the nuclear-armed Soviet Union. He negotiated with the Russians including a nuclear treaty. George W. Bush, on the other hand, used the military for regime change and dared a weakened Russia to stop him. Reagan believed in strength through negotiation; Bush believed strength comes through pre-emptive strikes.
Chris Christie tried to make become relevant by promising that if he is elected, he will install a no fly zone in Syria and “absolutely” shoot down Russian planes who dare to violate it. If it triggers a war, so be it. Immediately, Senator Rand Paul responded, saying if there are voters who want World War III, you now have a candidate, pointing to Christie.
Trump, Rand Paul, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz thought regime change was a failed policy. Trump said that the pursuit of regime change in Iraq, Libya, and Egypt wasted “$4 trillion dollars that could have been spent on fixing out roads, schools, and other infrastructure.” He said regime change only led to chaos. Carson, Cruz and Paul agreed. The top-tier Republican candidates and Rand Paul, all vehemently reject the foreign policy of the last Republican president. Given the polls, it seems Republican voters are rejecting those policies as well.
So Rubio, Bush, Christie and the others favor using the military for regime change and the top polling candidates and Paul oppose it, the next debate should be very interesting.