The Republican Debate: The Report Card

The Republican presidential candidates pose before the start of the CNBC debate on October 28. From left, Governor John Kasich, former Governor Mike Huckabee, former Governor Jeb Bush, Senator Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, Ben Carson, former HP CEO Carly Fiorina and Senator Ted Cruz. Evan Semon/Reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

On the evening of October 28, Republican presidential candidates assembled at the University of Colorado at Boulder for the third GOP debate.

Titled "Your Money, Your Vote," the event was hosted by CNBC, with Carl Quintanilla, Becky Quick and John Harwood moderating. Rick Santelli, Sharon Epperson and Jim Cramer joined later in the program.

A 6 p.m. debate featured Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, former New York Governor George Pataki and Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

At 8 p.m., Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Ohio Governor John Kasich and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul sparred for two hours about the best ways to propel the American economy, and a variety of other subjects.

Some takeaways from American Enterprise Institute scholars:

Michael Barone

John Quincy Adams expected that Cuba would one day be part of the United States. His prognostication was, sort of, vindicated in CNBC's Republican presidential debate. The clear stars were both of Cuban descent, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Both struck hard against the Democrats—and, even more, at the CNBC debate moderators.

The biggest moment of the night, in my view, came when Rubio responded to a predictable question about his spotty Senate voting record and the [Fort Lauderdale] Sun Sentinel editorial calling on him to resign from the Senate. Rubio was clearly prepared, with facts, showing the paper's bias and that of the moderators, and won his set-to with Jeb Bush. Cruz was similarly sharp when he compared the questions and the responses in this debate with those in the CNN Democratic debate October 13.

Viewers may have wondered why Donald Trump and Ben Carson are leading in polls. Both came up with some good answers and avoided mistakes.

John Kasich's initial response, attacking them, didn't work, in my view, but some of his later comments were attractive. Bush did better on other issues than in his joust with Rubio, but didn't show the sense of command that Rubio, Cruz, Carly Fiorina and Chris Christie showed.

Mike Huckabee and Rand Paul seemed to realize that they were not really in contention; rather, they made interesting points about curing disease and reining in the Federal Reserve.

The Republican debaters got great mileage out of bashing the moderators, and justifiably so. But I think their call for more sympathetic moderators is unwise. The unsympathetic moderators not only produced a debate that benefited the Republicans with their constituency but also elicited from them some major themes that work for their party and against the Democrats—notably the arguments against crony capitalism and the argument, made most cogently by Fiorina but echoed by others, that big government policies favor the wealthy and the well-connected and leave ordinary people and the poor worse off.

Hostile moderators gave the candidates a chance to make strong arguments that could work for the eventual nominee.

Andrew Biggs

On Social Security, the candidates waged a war between morality and math.

Governor Mike Huckabee argued that the government has a moral obligation to pay every penny of benefits it has promised, while Senator Ted Cruz and Governor Chris Christie pointed out that, mathematically, Social Security doesn't have the money to do so.

A real solution to the Social Security problem demands both morality and math: protecting Americans who need it most but promoting financial independence so future retirees won't depend so heavily on a government that fails to keep its promises.

Karlyn Bowman

Many of the GOP candidates had good moments in the debate. I didn't see a clear winner, though Ted Cruz, Chris Christie and Marco Rubio might have helped themselves.

Republicans are especially attuned to media bias, so it wasn't surprising that Cruz, Rubio and Ben Carson got substantial applause for their negative comments about the press. Rubio, Christie, Carly Fiorina and Mike Huckabee took on Hillary Clinton. I was surprised the others didn't do so.

They seemed to take on the media more than each other or Hillary. Jeb Bush sounded solid and substantive, but he isn't charismatic in these debates. His reserve might be attractive in other settings, but it makes him fade into the background with candidates with stronger personalities.

Alex Brill

The GOP debate delivered little to no new substantive information about the candidates' public policy views. It was a personality debate more than anything, and we learned that many candidates lack it. They all campaigned against Hillary Clinton and the federal government generally, but the clear policy differences were obscured by the sound bite structure of the debate and the candidates' desire for tossing out zingers.

The winner? Probably Carly Fiorina for her clear mastery of the issues and her crisp message. While her poll numbers are unimpressive, we should remember it is still early in this race.

Timothy P. Carney

Marco Rubio simultaneously defeated Jeb Bush and the CNBC moderators during the debate. Rubio was prepared for the attacks he would endure, and he not only fought them off. He parried them into resounding rhetorical victories.

Perhaps Rubio didn't set aside concerns about his Senate absenteeism or his tax cuts' distributional curve, but he proved that he can win a debate—which is much of what voters are looking for.

It would have been edifying if the moderators spent more time flushing out the details of the candidates' policy proposals; when they did, it was mostly fruitful and enlightening.

Robert Doar

The Republican candidates for president turned their attention to economic issues and talked about the extent to which poor and middle-class Americans are struggling. Higher poverty rates, more inequality, lower labor force participation—all were touched upon as they tried to top each other in describing how bad the economy has performed during the past seven years. And they are right. Poverty is up, employment is down, and household incomes for poor and middle-class Americans are lower than they were in 2007.

But when it came to talking about what they were going to do about these problems, too often the answer was only about cutting taxes. Yes, they mentioned "too many government regulations," but the portfolio of ideas for getting our economy moving again should be broader than that and more specific.

Maybe more policy depth and details is too much to ask for in a debate with 10 candidates and moderators who ask too many silly questions. But as the campaign unfolds and real voters in real primary states begin to pay attention, the candidate who offers the most plausible and creative proposals for getting our economy going again is going to be one who has the best chance of beating Hillary Clinton.

Andrew Kelly

We got one question on student debt in the GOP debate, and it went first to Governor John Kasich. His discussion was substantive and important, highlighting the idea that we have to get control of college costs (what it actually costs to deliver education) and not just college prices (what they charge).

Kasich then discussed one of the major cost-drivers in higher education: increased spending on nonacademic functions like amenities and administration. The answer was light on policy solutions, but the diagnosis was sound.

Unfortunately, the candidates didn't have much time to respond to the Democrats' "free college plans," which would have been interesting to watch.

Aparna Mathur

Happy to hear the GOP candidates discuss corporate and personal tax reform. With a high corporate tax rate that is out of line with the rest of the world, the U.S. stands to lose investments (we saw this recently with tax inversions), and this has a negative effect on wages and jobs.

At the same time, personal tax reform is critical for revenue generation and redistribution. While raising taxes at the top is not the simple solution to increasing revenues that we expect it to be, we can adopt better policies to directly help people at the bottom.

Marco Rubio mentioned his plan to expand the Child Tax Credit, but I would also like to see some discussion of ways to provide paid family leave, particularly for low-income families, and ways of expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, which would also help improve labor force participation.

Lawrence M. Mead

In the Republican debate, there was a clear division between the candidates with and without serious government experience. Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich spoke of solving practical problems as governors of major states. At the other extreme were Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson, who dealt mainly in Republican rhetoric because they lack a track record in public office.

Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio fell somewhere in the middle, as befits senators, who must deal with some real issues but don't actually have to run anything or balance budgets. Unfortunately, the best speakers—Fiorina and Rubio—are among those with the least public experience. Republican voters will be tempted to choose a symbol of their anti-government mood rather than someone who could really run Washington better.

Norm Ornstein

It is getting harder to watch debates with 10 people on a stage—and much harder for moderators to manage them. Candidates are tempted to go for applause lines, which means adopting Newt Gingrich's tried and true tactic of bashing the mainstream media. That meant even less focus on substance.

Nonetheless, some candidates manage to stand out, good and bad. This was a good night for Marco Rubio and for Chris Christie, although I doubt that his personality will attract more support. Rubio skillfully evaded the real questions about his dicey personal finances, including his misuse of an official credit card, which will come up again. But he has an impressive ability to take questions and evoke real people in a way that broadens his appeal.

I think it was a good night for Ted Cruz; I have suggested before that he is like a race car driver, drafting behind Donald Trump and Ben Carson. He is better positioned to pick up the pieces if they both falter.

Carson did all he needed to satisfy his supporters, even as he demonstrated no understanding of the economy, taxes and even Medicare.

Trump, despite an embarrassing lie about a comment he denied making that was actually on his own website, did not disappoint his base either.

Carly Fiorina had her business record challenged and did not fare very well on that front; I would be surprised if she gets any bounce from this performance that is comparable to the last time.

The most visible losers, I believe, were Jeb Bush and Rand Paul.

Bush tried, showing more energy than before, but got schooled by both Rubio and Christie. The latter was unfair—fantasy football has become a huge base of illegal gambling using insider information—but that was not the impression left by the exchange. A close talking about uniters and dividers didn't help.

Paul just does not stand out as presidential material on that stage.

The big question coming out of this is whether Bush's backers pull back even more, leaving him in a precarious state—or whether he can keep it going long enough to complicate matters more for Rubio.

Ramesh Ponnuru

Chris Christie and Ted Cruz made stronger impressions in the CNBC debate than they had at the previous two, helped in both cases by poor moderating that they could use as a foil. Ben Carson did fine, neither helping himself greatly nor suffering much damage. Carly Fiorina did fine too, but in her case that's a problem since the main thing she has had going for her has been two stellar debate performances.

Donald Trump has a problem in these debates that is an acute version of the one he faces in the campaign generally: Either he finds a new way to shock and outrage people, in which case he runs into diminishing returns, or he campaigns like a normal candidate, in which case he's boring. He didn't find a way out of that trap Wednesday night.

Marco Rubio was the big winner. He effectively parried every criticism that came his way, whether from the moderators or from Jeb Bush. Rubio is now clearly leading Bush in their so-called "establishment lane." That's especially bad news for Bush, who needed to reassure nervous donors after last week's staff cutbacks.

Angela Rachidi

The candidates came out swinging in Wednesday night's Republican presidential debate, but the target was not so much each other but the moderators. And rightly so.

With the focus on the economy, the debate lacked discussion on many economic issues, including how the candidates would approach policies concerning poverty and low income in this country. But credit goes to the candidates who infused these issues into their responses.

Marco Rubio turned around questions about his political ambition and personal finances to his interest in helping middle-income families; Ted Cruz and Carly Fiorina talked about women in poverty when asked about equal pay; John Kasich mentioned the problem of limited job skills when discussing income inequality; and my favorite of the night was Chris Christie questioning why moderators were asking about fantasy football when we have a $19 trillion debt and people out of work.

Many people think Republicans don't care about poverty and low income. But this debate showed that they might be wrong, even though the moderators didn't ask the right questions.

Benjamin Zycher

Some brief observations on the CNBC debate, first on the candidates' comments and then on the questions.

With respect to the candidates:

  • Donald Trump cannot divorce himself from the silliness of the great beautiful wall that Mexico will finance. This is apart from the deeply disturbing vision of expelling 10 million to 11 million people, presumably on a column of buses the length of which would be twice as long as the wall itself, by my back-of-an-envelope computation.
  • Ben Carson and Ted Cruz continue to advocate a "flat" tax without deductions and other tax preferences. Neither candidate seems to recognize that such a flat tax cannot be a political equilibrium, as Congress has eternal incentives to bestow favors on concentrated interest groups at the expense of the great mass of unorganized taxpayers. That is why the Reagan tax reform of 1986—a very substantial flattening of the federal tax structure—has been undone over time.
  • Carly Fiorina insists that the tax reform problem demands someone to get it done, without explaining precisely how to do that. She did, however, make a very good point about the effect of ever-bigger government in terms of forcing consolidation and less competition in the private sector.
  • She made another good point about the absurdity of a federal role in the creation of 401(k) plans by private businesses, and implicitly about the absurdity of federal involvement in the structuring of labor compensation.
  • Donald Trump believes that we should "get rid" of super PACs—that is, of the right of citizens to peaceably assemble for the purpose of political advocacy. Since he is sufficiently wealthy to fund much of his campaign—or so he tells us—this would bestow a huge advantage on him.
  • Rand Paul argued that the payroll tax should be reduced and shifted to businesses. Would that not drive wages down? He did not offer a thought on that.
  • Trump actually made good sense on the absurdity of gun-free zones, even if his verbiage was typically sloppy.
  • Jeb Bush actually believes that fantasy football should be regulated. Wow. Chris Christy, no one's idea of a libertarian, found this idea absurd. Because it is.

And with respect to the questions: This debate was supposed to be about economic policy, defined broadly. And so consider these gems.

  • A question about Rubio's Senate attendance, driven by a newspaper editorial.
  • A question about Jeb's decline in the polls.
  • A question about Hewlett-Packard's stock performance while Fiorina was the CEO.
  • A question about Rubio's family finances and his use of some retirement dollars.
  • A question assuming the veracity of the "women earn 77 percent as much as men" canard. Wow. Just wow.
  • A question to Ben Carson about Costco's policy on benefits for employees in same-sex relationships.
  • A question to Mike Huckabee about whether Trump has the moral authority to unite America. Wow again.

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. Andrew G. Biggs is a resident scholar at AEI. Karlyn Bowman is senior fellow and research coordinator at AEI. Alex Brill is a research fellow at AEI. Timothy P. Carney is visiting fellow, Culture of Competition Project, at AEI. Robert Doar is the Morgridge fellow in poverty studies at AEI. Andrew P. Kelly is a resident scholar in education policy studies and the director of the Center on Higher Education Reform at AEI. Aparna Mathur is a resident scholar in economic policy studies at AEI.

Lawrence Mead is a visiting scholar at AEI and a professor of politics and public policy at New York University. Norman Ornstein served as co-director of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also served as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Ramesh Ponnuru is a visiting fellow at AEI, a senior editor for National Review and a columnist for Bloomberg View. Angela Rachidi is a research fellow in poverty studies at AEI and a former deputy commissioner for policy research and evaluation for the Department of Social Services in New York. Benjamin Zycher is the John G. Searle chair, a resident scholar at AEI and a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute.