GOP Food Fight: Blows Rain Down on Trump in Houston

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Marco Rubio and Donald Trump react to each other as they discuss an issue during the debate, the last major meeting before Tuesday’s Super Tuesday primary. Mike Stone/Reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute's site.

Five Republican presidential candidates remain from the initial pool of 17, and they came to the University of Houston Thursday night for the last major meeting before Tuesday's Super Tuesday primary.

Hosted by CNN and live-translated into Spanish on Telemundo, this was the first debate—since Ohio's August 6 debate—to take place on the home turf of one of the candidates.

The press had painted it as a do-or-die battle between front-runner Donald Trump, and his best-performing rivals, Senators Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Ted Crux (Texas). The New York Times wrote on Thursday that "Ted Cruz Fights in Texas, Hoping It Won't Be His Alamo," while CNN added to the hype, asking whether Rubio could " rise to the occasion" and whether Trump would "go in for the kill" after three consecutive victories. Dr. Ben Carson and Ohio Governor John Kasich joined these three.

Did it live up to the hype? Who lay claim to GOP "establishment" or "outsider" status? AEI scholars respond.

Michael Barone

"I've actually enjoyed every debate," Donald Trump said after the CNN/University of Houston debate last night—which might have been his least convincing statement of the night.

For the first time in the 10 Republican debates, Trump got pummeled, and pummeled hard, by Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Of all the exchanges, I think the most telling was where Rubio went mano a mano with Trump on health care, revealing that Trump didn't really have anything in the way of a serious health care policy—and then circled back and accused Trump of repeating the same sound-bite-sized response over and over again, the charge that Chris Christie made against Rubio in the debate in New Hampshire.

Cruz also got in some tough criticism of Trump's lack of coherent and consistent policy on health care. Both Rubio and Cruz highlighted the thinness of Trump on other policies as well.

In these exchanges, Cruz seemed to show more sense of command than Rubio did, but they both got to make possibly devastating points against the front-runner, and Rubio even did so with a dollop of humor. It's interesting that Cruz rather than Rubio made the electability argument. Cruz's point was valid, but Rubio runs perceptibly better than Cruz against Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

The major question is whether the debate will reduce Trump's support. It's possible: in two previous debates Trump's numbers wilted at least a bit. And as we know from exit polls, Trump has tended to slightly underperform his poll numbers, while Rubio—except after his debate setback in New Hampshire—has tended to overperform his, as Ted Cruz also did in Iowa.

The problem for each of those attackers—and for John Kasich who presented a stronger and more pointedly conservative case for himself, even though he didn't join in on the attacks on Trump—is that they all did a good job, leaving the opposition to Trump divided.

If you suppose that Trump has 33 percent of Republican primary votes—his number in the realclearpolitics.com average of recent national polls—and if you suppose that that number has fallen, that leaves open the possibility of his losing even in two- or two-and-a-half-to-one contests.

Bottom line: Rubio and Cruz accepted the advice, and pleas, from conservatives that they go after Trump. We don't know the effect on voters. But the result, I suspect, is that the race for this nomination is not over.

Karlyn Bowman

The most memorable line of the evening was probably, "The wall just got 10 feet taller," Donald Trump's response to Wolf Blitzer's assertion that Mexican government officials said they would never pay for the wall.

The back-and-forth on immigration, like the discussions of many other issues in the debate, became tiresome because the CNN moderators seemed only interested in provocation and watching the candidates fight.

Ben Carson's comment "would someone please attack me" illustrated the point. Only candidates who attacked each other got air time.

The foreign policy portion of the evening started out as more interesting because answers were crisp and there were fewer arguments and more discussion, but it soon became another food fight.

Marco Rubio was articulate and substantive and may have won on points. Kasich was solid, too, but Donald Trump wins food fights.

James Capretta

The good news is that this GOP debate focused more than previous debates on real substantive issues, including economic growth, fiscal restraint and replacement of Obamacare.

Unfortunately, much of what was said by the candidates, especially Donald Trump, was so confused and nonsensical that it is doubtful the electorate learned very much.

On Obamacare, Trump kept saying he wanted to get rid of the law but "keep pre-existing conditions." Presumably, what he meant was that the only provisions of Obamacare he would keep would be the provisions which prohibit insurers from charging higher premiums to persons who have pre-existing conditions.

But he also said he would get rid of the individual mandate (reversing something he said previously). He never explained how he would make the insurance market work with no rating by insurers of customers based on health status and yet also with no incentive for people to stay insured.

Then he kept saying over and over that we need to eliminate the lines around the states. What he probably meant is that insurers should be allowed to sell across state lines. That was the entirety of his plan to replace Obamacare.

Selling insurance nationwide may be modestly helpful. It does not come close to constituting a plan for fixing health care in the United States.

On fiscal policy, his answers were even worse. When asked what he would do to cut spending and reduce budget deficits, he said the answer was elimination of waste, fraud and abuse. This is the oldest and most tired canned answer in the book. He has no idea what he is talking about. The only surprise is that he didn't throw congressional pay and foreign aid in the mix for good measure.

Senator Rubio was aggressive and took the fight to Trump in a way he hadn't before, which is what he had to do. That was nice to see, regardless of whether or not it works.

Timothy P. Carney

Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz did what they had to do Thursday night: They aggressively attacked Donald Trump—as liberal, as vacuous, as an employer of illegal immigrants. Rubio also successfully mocked Trump repeatedly.

Had they done this all along, Trump might not be leading in the polls. But they didn't, and five days before Super Tuesday may prove to be too late.

Here's another reason their attacks may not stick: Rubio clearly defeated Trump on the substance throughout the debate, but Trump often simply bulldozed the other candidates by interrupting more insistently and loudly and snidely. For his supporters, this is proof of his virtue.

It's possible Rubio's illegal-immigrant attacks will stick, along with his demonstration that Trump's health-care plan is nonsense. It's also possible Cruz convinced some voters that Trump can't beat Hillary. But the Trump support to date has seemed so immune to facts and substance, that it may be too late for anything to stop him.

Sadanand Dhume

This was yet another GOP debate that more or less ignored the world's most populous and economically dynamic continent—Asia. There was nothing about China's growing aggression in the South China Sea or concerns about its volatile economy. Japan and South Korea were mentioned only in passing. South Asia—India, Pakistan and Afghanistan—were invisible.

This neglect notwithstanding, even passing mention of Asia illustrated Donald Trump's clownishly simple view of the world. He appears not to realize that though China may be an adversary, Japan and South Korea are close U.S. allies.

His focus on the trade deficit suggests an understanding of the region's challenges shaped by—and frozen in—the 1980s. Another reminder, if one were needed, that the GOP front-runner is woefully unprepared to be commander in chief.

Michael Mazza

During Thursday's debate, Donald Trump again asserted that Japan and South Korea should be paying the United States for providing military protection. "We defend all these countries for peanuts," he said. "We have to start getting reimbursed for taking care of the military services for all of these countries."

This ignores the fact that Tokyo and Seoul, respectively, provide $1.6 billion and nearly $900 million annually in host-nation support. Not exactly chump change (Trump change?). But more importantly, Trump misses the broader point: The United States has alliances with Japan and South Korea, and stations significant forces in those countries, because it is in America's interests to do so.

The United States does not hand out alliance commitments as acts of charity. American military presence in the region has created an environment conducive to prosperity, peace and the spread of liberal democracy in the Asia-Pacific, the economic and security benefits of which accrue not only to Asians but to Americans as well.

Ramesh Ponnuru

Republicans who do not want to see front-runner Donald Trump win their party's nomination spent the hours before last night's debate fretting about whether Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio would finally go after him in a sustained way.

They did. They made the case that Trump is a liar, a hypocrite, an ignoramus, an extremely risky nominee and no friend of American workers—and they had several assists from their target in making this case.

Whether this exposure of the obvious will cause Trump to lose any votes is a different matter. And since both Cruz and Rubio did well, the debate did nothing to clarify which one will be the standard bearer for the anti-Trump Republicans.

Ben Carson and John Kasich decided to stand apart from the Rubio-Cruz-Trump arguments. Doubtless they think their conduct will make them look more high-minded. I suspect it will underscore that neither of them is actually running a national campaign.

Angela Rachidi

Last night's GOP debate was unruly. And unfortunately, likely not a game-changer. Senator Rubio was effective at exposing Donald Trump's many shortcomings, but I don't think Trump supporters care. With a very strong performance, Rubio probably firmed up his support, but I don't see how he won over Trump supporters, which he may need.

In terms of substance, very little was offered. Toward the end of the debate, foreign policy got some attention. But the economy got short shrift.

It was refreshing to hear Governor Kasich talk about jobs and economic growth. In talking about Ohio he said, "We're strong. We're job friendly. We don't raise their taxes.… And that's what this country needs, jobs, jobs, jobs." Too bad most people aren't listening.

Derek Scissors

One point that Mr. Trump keeps bringing up that many protectionists also use: Trade deficits must mean we're losing. But we don't just give money to China and Mexico. We give $500 billion, and we get $500 billion worth of goods and services. And it only happens because Americans want to buy those goods.

It's true that blocking them or making them more expensive with tariffs will hurt China or Mexico, but it will also hurt Americans and probably poor Americans most.

Weifeng Zhong

What good can artificial intelligence (AI) possibly do to democracy?

Well, here is a proposition. If AI becomes so advanced one day that, whenever a candidate avoids answering a question or obfuscates when answering, his or her microphone is automatically turned off, then the amount of actual information contained in a debate will be much larger.

When asked how exactly he will make Mexico pay for the wall, Mr. Trump's answer was "the wall just got 10 feet taller, believe me." When confronted with the issue of regime change in North Korea, Governor Kasich drifted off, apparently unwilling to "talk exactly what that means."

Wouldn't it be nice if all the nonsense was simply muted last night? With the best AI, we will do "a heck of a lot" better in democracy. "Believe me."

Benjamin Zycher

I do not believe that I have ever seen a display of ignorance quite as exquisite as that proudly put forth by Donald Trump tonight. To wit, a small sampling:

  • With respect to Obamacare, having endorsed the individual mandate earlier in the week, Trump obviously was told by his advisers that he needed to walk that back, and so right at the beginning called for repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act. But The Donald also wants to "keep pre-existing conditions," that is, coverage availability for those who otherwise might not be insurable.
  • So is the individual mandate still needed? "No," said Mr. Trump, who then offered up a word salad about lobbyists when asked the obvious question about how to cover unhealthy people without a coverage mandate for healthy individuals.

"Insurers are making a fortune." Trump apparently does not realize that insurers are getting killed on the ACA exchanges and are threatening to pull out of the program.

Asked for specifics about his plan—his policy plan to replace the ACA—Trump actually said that there would be "lots of plans" engendered by removing "circles around the states," that is, allowing interstate competition.

That, of course, does not answer the question of how to preserve coverage for those with pre-existing conditions without forcing healthier individuals to buy (expensive) coverage. The obvious answer is a bigger tax credit for unhealthy people, but this reality is far far far far above Mr. Trump's head.

  • Trump used to argue that illegal immigrants would be forced or induced to leave, and "the good ones"—which must have meant the 97 or so percent of them who are not criminals—would be allowed to return. That is an obvious amnesty, for good or ill; and so this evening Trump changed so "the best" will be allowed to return.

What does that mean? No one asked Trump, and he did not elaborate, obviously because he has no idea. Whatever it means, if only a subset of those induced or forced to leave will be allowed to return, then far fewer will be willing to leave voluntarily at the beginning.

His "plan," in other words, is incoherent, but The Donald seems not to understand even that.

  • "How will you force Mexico to pay for the wall?" Answer: "We have a trade deficit of $58 billion with Mexico," which a few minutes later became, "We are losing $58 billion." (Wow. We send dollars to Mexico, and receive nothing in return. Who knew?)

And so, apparently, Trump plans to force Mexico to pay for the wall by starting or threatening a trade war. Trump may believe that he knows how that will end; but he does not. Obviously.

  • So we will balance the budget, says The Donald, by getting rid of the Department of Education and shifting EPA functions to the states. Total reduction in outlays: about $76 billion. The deficit: roughly $500 billion. What about the remaining $400+ billion? Answer: "We'll get rid of waste, fraud, and abuse." Wow again. And how will he do so? He has no clue.
  • It'll be very tough, says Donald, but he can bring peace to the Middle East because he "is a negotiator." Does Donald –who defines himself as Israel's best friend among those on the stage—understand that neither the Palestinian Authority nor Hamas want peace as conventionally defined?

Well, no. He does not. Which is amazing.

  • And while we're on the subject of the Middle East, did you know, Donald's fellow Americans, that Marco Rubio is "a joke," and Ted Cruz "a liar"? Well, all right then; peace is at hand.

Just as one rotten apple spoils the whole barrel, Trump's vulgarity, incivility, and crudeness necessarily are contagious, as his opponents must descent toward his level lest they find themselves not able to respond to anything. Thus did Trump again last evening do damage to the majesty of the American political system and to the dignity of the office of the presidency.

This is a reality that he probably does recognize. He does not care.

Michael Barone , a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of the annual Almanac of American Politics (National Journal Group), is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner.

Karlyn Bowman is senior fellow and research coordinator at AEI.

James Capretta is a visiting fellow at AEI.

Timothy P. Carney is visiting fellow, culture of competition project, at the American Enterprise Institute.

Sadanand Dhume is a resident fellow at AEI.

Michael Mazza is a research fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at AEI.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a visiting fellow at AEI, a senior editor for National Review and a columnist for Bloomberg View.

Angela Rachidi is research fellow, poverty studies at AEI.

Derek Scissors is a resident scholar at AEI.

Weifeng Zhong is a research fellow, economic policy studies, at AEI.

Benjamin Zycher is the John G. Searle Chair and a resident scholar at AEI.