MILWAUKEE — For months, the Republican presidential race has been animated by the party’s inchoate anger about the state of the country and an equally undefined hope that a candidate would emerge who could usher in an era of civic renewal. But the debate here and its aftermath marked an abrupt transition from vague promises about making America “great again,” in Donald J. Trump’s phrase, to a new season of the campaign shaped more by the glaring policy fissures that are dividing Republicans over what exactly to do about the nation’s problems.
From immigration and bank regulation to taxes and national security, the robust seminar on the issues that began Tuesday night and continued Wednesday exposed a contentious dispute over what it means to be a conservative and offered a preview of the contours of the battle for the Republican nomination.
Years’ worth of arguments conducted at issues forums and in the pages of policy journals and newspapers are now coming to life. The Republican hopefuls are sparring over such high-fiber fare as tax policy: whether to adhere strictly to the party’s supply-side creed or move at least modestly toward policies aimed at bolstering lesser earners. They are clashing over the role America plays in the world, and whether fiscal conservatism is compatible with a drastically enlarged military.
Most vividly, and perhaps consequentially, they are staking out their ground on immigration, clarifying the divide between restrictionists and pragmatists on an issue that could determine who is the party’s nominee.
“The conservative movement is in general agreement on lowering taxes and cutting spending, but we’re just not unified on some of these other issues,” said Stephen Moore, a Heritage Foundation scholar who has advised some of the campaigns.
The exchanges among the candidates — some of them explicit, others implied — that began Tuesday night spilled over in television interviews and on the campaign trail Wednesday, presaging a fierce fight over ideas as the campaign heads into a period focused in Iowa and New Hampshire, with no nationally televised debate until Dec. 15, the last one before January.
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Mr. Trump are positioning themselves as the unapologetic champions of a brand of conservatism that is tailored to appeal to party activists: striking a hard line on immigration and trade, promoting sharply lower tax rates and enhancing military might while adding notes of caution about overextending American forces in foreign crises.
Jeb Bush and Gov. John R. Kasich of Ohio, by contrast, are appealing to more pragmatic if hawkish Republicans: dismissing as unrealistic — and even un-American — the prospect of deporting illegal immigrants, promoting tax policies that do not add as much to the deficit and insisting on a central place for the United States in global affairs.
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who was able to avoid discussing immigration at the debate, lines up on policy more with Mr. Bush and Mr. Kasich. But he is sensitive to being pegged in the campaign’s “moderate lane” — as Mr. Cruz likes to call it — and is more careful with his language.
Mr. Rubio is also facing a new line of questioning from doctrinaire supply-side conservatives about his tax plan, which would enlarge and make refundable a tax credit to families with children. How he defends it, and whether that weakens him among conservatives, could offer insight into the priorities of a party that is increasingly blue collar yet recoils from anything that resembles a government handout.
“This is a great test of just how anti-spending the Republican base is now and whether they will view anything like this as enabling dependency,” said James Pethokoukis, an American Enterprise Institute scholar who supports such efforts to help workers.
A Wall, or a Path
Mr. Trump used the immigration issue like rocket fuel in launching his candidacy, and Tuesday’s debate highlighted the subject’s lasting power — and the deep divides among the candidates and within the party as Republicans struggle to broaden their appeal to Hispanics and other minority voters.
Mr. Rubio must walk a tightrope in explaining his role in forging a 2013 bipartisan bill that included a path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants already in the country illegally.
The bill ultimately died in the Republican-controlled House, but the party’s grass-roots base remains inflamed over the issue and Mr. Rubio has distanced himself from the legislation, saying he now prefers a step-by-step approach that starts with securing the border.
“The lesson I learned from that is the people of the United States do not trust the federal government on immigration,” he said Wednesday on Fox News.
“If you’re a criminal, you’ll be deported,” Mr. Rubio said in explaining his current position. “If you’re not a criminal, and have been here longer than 10 years, you have to learn English. You have to start paying taxes. You’re going to have to pay a fine. And then you’ll get a work permit.” He did not mention the question that enrages so many conservative voters: whether to eventually grant citizenship to illegal immigrants.
Mr. Rubio’s nuanced approach falls somewhere between those of his Republican rivals. Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz won applause Tuesday night for their tough stances, with Mr. Trump again arguing in favor of deporting immigrants in the country illegally and building a wall along the Mexican border.
“You are going to have to send people out,” Mr. Trump said. “We are a country of laws.”
Mr. Cruz, echoing Mr. Trump, made an economic argument, casting illegal immigration as an “economic calamity” that is “going to drive down the wages for millions of hard-working men and women.”
Mr. Bush and Mr. Kasich cast themselves as pragmatists who recognize that rounding up and deporting millions of people would be virtually impossible, not to mention inhumane.
“We all know you can’t pick them up and ship them across, back across the border,” Mr. Kasich said, adding: “Think about the families, think about the children.”
Mr. Bush — who favors a path to earned legal status, including learning English and paying fines — said mass deportations were “just not possible.”
“It would tear communities apart,” he said. “And it would send a signal that we’re not the kind of country that I know America is.”
But in a sign of just how wide the schism is on immigration, the candidates couldn’t even agree on the political ramifications of their disagreement.
“Even having this conversation sends a powerful signal — they’re doing high-fives in the Clinton campaign right now when they hear this,” Mr. Bush said, to applause. “That’s the problem with this. We have to win the presidency.”
But Mr. Cruz drew applause when he argued the exact opposite. “The Democrats are laughing,” he said, “because if Republicans join Democrats as the party of amnesty, we will lose.”
The U.S. Place in the World
It was not long ago that Republican foreign policy amounted to variations on a theme: Trade agreements bolster big businesses and international alliances. Military budgets should grow even in times of austerity. No matter what, do not let the Russians or the Chinese challenge American pre-eminence.
No longer. Tuesday’s debate underscored the schism among candidates whose rallying cry is “Let someone else fight the wars” and the American exceptionalists.
Mr. Trump and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky were clearly in the first camp. “If Putin wants to go and knock the hell out of ISIS, I am all for it, 100 percent, and I can’t understand how anybody would be against it,” Mr. Trump said of Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian president.
Then came Mr. Paul, ready to take on Mr. Kasich, Mr. Rubio and Mr. Bush, who talked of imposing and enforcing no-fly zones in Syria and Iraq, a position fairly close to the one described recently by Hillary Rodham Clinton. “When you think it’s going to be a good idea to have a no-fly zone over Iraq, realize that means you are saying we are going to shoot down Russian planes,” Mr. Paul said. “If you are ready for that, be ready to send your sons and daughters to another war in Iraq.”
The exchange captured the box that Republicans find themselves in when it comes to national security. Nothing fires up the base more than a description of President Obama as “weak,” and by extension Mrs. Clinton, his former secretary of state. But for the more traditional, hawkish candidates, that has usually meant issuing declarations of how they would use military force, with little discussion of other expressions of American power, like building alliances, tailoring economic sanctions or taking covert action.
But at a moment when polls show Americans are exhausted by 14 years of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, the candidates seem unsure how to describe alliance-building in a way that could fire up Iowans.
Mr. Bush tried. “Donald’s wrong on this,” he said, after Mr. Trump expressed satisfaction with having Russia deal with ISIS. “We’re not going to be the world’s policeman, but we sure as heck better be the world’s leader.” And one of Mr. Bush’s biggest applause lines was that Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton “both do not believe the United States has a leadership role to play, and we’re now paying a price.”
Mr. Rubio jumped in with a diagnosis: He had never met Mr. Putin, “but I know enough about him to know he is a gangster” who “understands only geopolitical strength.”
There was no mention of the fact that Russia has had a naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus since 1971, when President Richard M. Nixon was in office.
Not to be outdone, Mr. Kasich leapt on a question about Chinese cyberattacks, a problem Mr. Obama is trying to address with a diplomatic agreement banning the use of online attacks to steal intellectual property. (The deal would do nothing to stop espionage.)
“We have the capability to not only have a defensive posture,” Mr. Kasich said. He would make it clear, “If you attack us with cyberattacks, we will destroy the mechanisms that you are using to attack us.”
He did not say what might happen next, if the battle escalated.
DAVID E. SANGER
Of Bank Bailouts and Blame
The Republican candidates nearly all expressed opposition to Wall Street greed and to the Dodd-Frank financial overhauls that were aimed at cleaning up the financial industry after the 2008 crisis.
But there was surprising disagreement about whom to blame for the crisis and how to deal with financial meltdowns in the future, highlighting how the topic will continue to be a thorny one for the Republican Party, which is generally allied with Wall Street at a time when popular sentiment against the industry remains high.
Asked whether they would bail out the banks in another crisis, Mr. Bush and Mr. Kasich, who both worked with Lehman Brothers before the crisis, did not line up with the popular sentiment against bailouts.
Mr. Bush argued that the real answer to the problem of ailing banks was to raise capital requirements, and added that the Dodd-Frank legislation has “actually done the opposite.”
Fact-checkers quickly noted that Dodd-Frank and other postcrisis overhauls have actually raised capital requirements on the banks so much that many of the largest banks have been cutting back business lines and shrinking operations.
Mr. Kasich said there was “too much greed” on Wall Street, but he alone, drawing boos, argued that bank bailouts were necessary in certain instances to protect depositors. Policy experts noted that depositors are generally protected by federal deposit insurance when banks go under.
Mr. Cruz, whose wife built her career at Goldman Sachs, said he would never support bailing out a bank, no matter how large the institution. Like several other candidates, he put the blame for the financial industry’s problems on Washington, which he said has coddled banks.
Mr. Rubio followed Mr. Cruz in arguing that the Dodd-Frank law has cemented the advantages of the largest banks.
“We have actually created a category of systemically important institutions, and these banks go around bragging about it,” Mr. Rubio said. “We are so big, we are so important that if we get in trouble, the government has to bail us out. This is an outrage. We need to repeal Dodd-Frank as soon as possible.”
All the candidates explained their opposition to Dodd-Frank by pointing to the damage it has done to smaller financial institutions and community banks. Carly Fiorina said the law was a “great example of how socialism starts.” NATHANIEL POPPER
Who Should Get Tax Cuts?
The candidates debated two main questions about taxes: Should they be lower than they are now, or should they be way lower? And should there be fewer tax rates, or just one single rate for everyone, rich and poor?
On the first question, one might say the proposed tax cuts range from huge to yooooooge. Mr. Trump’s tax cut would appear to cost about $11 trillion — a quarter of expected government revenue — over a decade. Mr. Kasich said that was too much because a tax cut that big “will put our kids way deeper in the hole than they have been.”
But even Mr. Kasich, despite his relative restraint, is proposing to cut taxes more deeply than President George W. Bush did and Mitt Romney promised to in 2012. He would lower the top personal income tax rate from 39.6 percent to 28 percent, the top capital gains tax rate from 23.8 percent to 15 percent and the top corporate income tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent — an approach that would greatly increase the deficit, if not as greatly as Mr. Trump’s ideas would.
The second point of contention: Should taxes be progressive, or should everybody pay the same rate? This question split the debate stage evenly. Four candidates (Ben Carson, Mr. Cruz, Mr. Paul and Mrs. Fiorina) have endorsed single-rate taxes, with Mr. Carson explicitly tying his proposal to the religious concept of tithing, though he now says the government might need more than the traditional 10 percent. The other four candidates (Mr. Trump, Mr. Kasich, Mr. Bush and Mr. Rubio) would keep a system of graduated tax rates, though they would all substantially lower the top rate of income tax from the current 39.6 percent.
Graphic | Republican Candidates on the Economy and Social Programs The contenders for the Republican presidential nomination have proposed numerous tax overhauls and have largely voiced opposition to raising the minimum wage. They are split on how to deal with Social Security and Medicare.
While candidates often frame flat-tax proposals as a matter of simplicity, this is really a fight over who wins: Should substantially all the benefit of a tax cut go to the rich, with some poor people (many of whom now pay no income tax) actually getting a higher tax bill after rates are equalized? Or should reform be designed to ensure everyone gets a nice slice of the tax-cut pie?
On the anti-flat side, Mr. Rubio has proposed a plan that combines big tax cuts for the rich (such as abolishing taxes on capital gains altogether) with big tax cuts for families with children. He would greatly increase the child-tax credit and allow that credit to offset not just income tax but also payroll taxes, an idea that would significantly benefit many people with low to moderate incomes. Mr. Paul attacked this idea as “a welfare transfer payment” that would cost $1 trillion over a decade.
It’s worth noting that the tax flatteners are not necessarily the biggest tax cutters. While Mr. Paul’s plan would transform the tax code more aggressively than Mr. Rubio’s and impose a lower maximum rate, it would actually collect more revenue. At $2 trillion, Mr. Paul has actually proposed one of the smallest tax cuts in the Republican field.
What’s Mr. Paul’s secret? Well, he would combine his flat income tax with a value-added tax — yes, the same kind of tax that finances the French welfare state. Similar to a sales tax, it would generate several times more revenue than the existing corporate income tax and ultimately be paid by consumers through higher prices. This idea is central to his and Mr. Cruz’s plans to abolish payroll taxes and cut personal income taxes below 15 percent, without generating yooooooge, Trump-style deficits. JOSH BARRO
This entry passed through the Full-Text RSS service – if this is your content and you’re reading it on someone else’s site, please read the FAQ at fivefilters.org/content-only/faq.php#publishers.
Powered by WPeMatico