Republicans Get Wonky In Fourth Presidential Debate

1110_Fourth GOP Republican Debate
Former Governor Jeb Bush, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, businessman Donald Trump, Dr. Ben Carson, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, former HP CEO Carly Fiorina and U.S. Rep. Rand Paul participate in the debate held by Fox Business Network for the top 2016 U.S. Republican presidential candidates in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, November 10. Darren Hauck/Reuters

Fox Business Network delivered on its promise to host a substantive, policy-heavy debate on the economy over the course of two hours in Milwaukee Tuesday night. The primetime Republican presidential debate featured the sort of discussion that favored elected politicians while quieting less experienced insurgents like business tycoon Donald Trump and pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson.

Even Trump's slashing insults, which used to draw a rise from the crowd, seemed to fall a little flat. His opponents have become more and more prepared. And establishment candidates like former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Ohio Governor John Kasich were eager for a fight, seeking a boost for their lagging campaigns.

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Compared to the three previous GOP debates, however, the fireworks were limited. This one was less three-ring circus, more Econ 101. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul spent several minutes dissecting the Federal Reserve's monetary policy, and explaining why he blames low interest rates for the growth of income inequality. Texas Senator Ted Cruz went on a rant against sugar subsidies and preached the need for sound money policies. Florida Senator Marco Rubio defended his expansion of the child tax credit in his tax reform proposal.

Even the disagreements were wonky. "Marco, how is it conservative to add a trillion dollar expenditure … that you're not going to pay for?" Paul asked of Rubio's child tax proposal. Rubio suggested it's unfair for people to get to write off investments on business equipment but not investments in their families. But then he tried to change the subject, turning the discussion to defense spending and the importance of American security, a surefire way to rally the conservative crowd. Paul, however, continued to push against his math.

Rubio wasn't the only one who struggled when pressed on the details of his or her proposals. The moderators consistently followed up when candidates ducked questions or were markedly vague. After Cruz boasted about his tax-cut plan, Fox Business Network editor Maria Bartiromo came back: "But you haven't told us how to pay for it?" Cruz seemed caught flat-footed, stumbling over an explanation that included dynamic costs and eliminating five executive branch agencies, although he listed only four, citing the Department of Commerce twice.

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And for once, Trump was put on the defensive, though less by the moderators and more by his fellow candidates. Paul pointed out that the tycoon's critique of the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement—a rambling harangue on China—ignored the fact that China isn't a party to the TPP. And in fact, the Kentucky senator continued, China's exclusion is a good argument for the U.S. participating and expanding its economic influence in Asia. Trump had no retort.

Bush and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina also knocked Trump for opposing intervention in Syria. "We can't always be the policeman of the world," the billionaire businessman mused. "Donald is wrong on this," Bush piped up. "We are not going to be the world's policeman but we sure as heck need to be the world's leader."

Carson, the other GOP frontrunner, was virtually invisible on the debate stage. When he did get a chance to speak, he did so haltingly, and addressed the issues in broad generalities. Asked if he supported breaking up big banks to prevent another financial crisis, Carson was concise, saying simply that he would have policies that prevent them from getting so big.

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It's not clear, however, that it will hurt Carson. While Trump fed off the exposure of previous debates, Carson hasn't been much of a factor in any of them, but has still surged to the top of the polls. Carson only got one question about inaccuracies in his personal story, which created a media storm last week. The doctor took a milder tone than at a testy Friday press conference or media interviews over the weekend, but still complained about journalistic malfeasance. "I have no problem with being vetted," Carson said Tuesday. "What I do have a problem with is being lied about." But he still didn't provide a very clear answer as to why he conflated an informal discussion about attending West Point with being an offered a scholarship there, as he described in his memoir and repeated interviews.

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Cruz also got in a dig at the media, suggesting the press is ignoring the impacts of illegal immigration. "I understand that when mainstream media covers immigration, it doesn't often see it as an economic issue," he said. But "if a bunch of people with journalism degrees were coming over and driving down the wages of the press, then we would see stories!"

However, compared to the Republican-versus-media combat that's been playing out since the messy, contested CNBC debate, the exchanges with the hosts in Milwaukee seemed like a veritable lovefest. On more than one occasion, the candidates actually complimented the moderator on their queries. "That was an excellent question," Rubio replied early on in the evening. That's usually an offhand thing for politicians to say, but given the vitriol between Republicans and the mainstream media these days, it sounded like an offer of detente.