The theme of last night's Republican presidential debate was national security. Immigration and border security were more of an appendix than a key part of the debate.
There is nothing earth-shattering to report (the transcript is here), but here is what we got:
We learned that Rubio still supports amnesty and a path to citizenship for illegal aliens.
Cruz got in the next blow, saying "border security is national security" and that he stood with Jeff Sessions and Steve King while Rubio aligned himself with Chuck Schumer and Obama.
Under the rules (where someone gets to respond when mentioned by someone else), Rubio got more time. Rubio pointed out Cruz's call for a 500 percent increase in H-1B visas and doubling the number of green cards issued each year.
So then Cruz got more time. In response, Cruz almost unleashed a fist fight (with other candidates frustrated about being closed out on the topic) when he pointed out that Rubio campaigned for the Senate as against amnesty and flip-flopped upon coming to Washington. Interestingly, Cruz did not mention his new bill to curtail H-1B abuse.
Rand Paul later attacked Rubio for the same thing, saying Rubio has more allegiance to Chuck Schumer than Republican policy.
Paul also pointed out that every terrorist who has come to the United States has done so via legal immigration.
Trump got to speak as the candidate who put this issue on the map. Trump said, "We either have a border or we don't" and that "People have to come in legally."
When Bush got his question, he said we have to secure the border. He made no mention of his past positions that have gotten him into trouble with the voters.
Ben Carson got the question about refugees. Carson recently visited a Syrian refugee camp and said the folks there wanted to return home, not come to America. His solution is to set up protected zones by arming the Kurds and supporting the Jordanians. He raised an issue also raised in the undercard debate, that American policy is to send all the arms to Bagdad, which only forwards a trickle to the folks who need them.
Chris Christie got the last question on immigration; a Facebook user asked about the Bible's call to help others. Christie bluntly responded that, as president, protecting Americans is the most important thing to him.
There was more substance on the immigration front in the undercard debate (transcript here), where everyone got at least one question on immigration (unlike the main event).
Rick Santorum voiced opposition to bringing in Syrian refugees, giving two reasons. First, there is no way to vet them due to the lack of a functioning government at the source. Second, removing all the moderates would leave the area in the hands of radicals.
Santorum was asked if supported the DREAM Act. He said he opposed it because the concept is just a magnet that attracts minor children to come to the United States illegally.
George Pataki said he agreed with Santorum about bringing in Syrian refugees. In support, he pointed out the inability of DHS to vet the woman who carried out the California terrorist attack even when she had boasted of radicalism on the Internet and that we know ISIS is trying to use refugee programs to get terrorists into the United States.
Like Carson, Pataki would set up safe zones in Syria as an alternative to bringing people here.
Pataki pointed out that Hillary Clinton has called for taking in 60,000 refugees. Even if only one in 1,000 becomes a terrorist, the result would be a disaster. Just 18 people caused 9/11.
Mike Huckabee called for changes in visa waivers. He also said America should not take on the terrorism risk by bringing in Syrian refugees. Protecting Americans is the foremost priority. Huckabee also said that if the Syrian refugees were going to the Upper East Side and Chappaqua the liberal elite would not be so enthusiastic.
Huckabee was asked about his support for legalization of illegal alien children and if he would continue DACA if he were president. Huckabee responded that it is unconstitutional. A president needs to persuade: "You don't just jump up and shove it up the nostrils of Congress, and the American people because you think you have a superior intellect...We don't elect kings, we elect servants."
Lindsey Graham got asked if he would still support his "comprehensive immigration reform" bill. He responded by not responding. Instead, he mentioned (yet again) how he had been to the Middle East. When the moderator pinned him down on the question, Graham said he would make changes.
Who are the winners?
In the main event:
Ted Cruz is best at managing the debate from a strategic perspective. He does well at responding to attacks and keeps Trump off the stage as much as possible. Instead, he turns the debate into one between himself and Rubio. If this debate does move people, I expect that Cruz will be the biggest beneficiary.
This type of event does not play to Trump's strengths, but Trump is able to hold his own. While everyone but Bush was acting to limit Trump's airtime, Trump made the most of what he got. The debate is not going to help Trump, but it is not going to hurt him either. When you have as big a lead as Trump does, you can call that a big win.
Marco Rubio is the slickest speaker, but he does not control the debate. The debate became largely Rubio v. Cruz with some Paul v. Cruz.
Rand Paul has to be considered a winner because he was able to work himself into the main debate in spite of the crowded field.
In the undercard:
Mike Huckabee did best this debate, sounding the most presidential. In some previous debates, I thought George Pataki was the victor, but Pataki was not at the top of his game on this one.
Who are the losers?
Jeb Bush was just a disaster. He went after Trump, giving Trump more time on stage. Trump then used that time to bash Bush as only Trump can do. Bush picked a fight right at the start and Trump stomped on him. Bush never recovered from that.
Cruz is too crafty to get into a mud fight with Trump. Rather than opposing Trump, Cruz takes advantage of Trump raising an issue to explain how Cruz's approach is more nuanced. (Both Huckabee and Santorum took that same approach in the undercard debate, while Pataki and Graham distanced themselves from Trump.)
Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and Chris Christie were losers in the sense that, while they made strong points, they were largely excluded from the main clashes (Rubio v. Cruz, Paul v. Rubio, Trump v. Bush) They did not do anything wrong, but they were victims of the debate format and how the debate progressed.
John Kasich has to be included here as well. If he said anything memorable, I cannot recall it.
In the undercard debate, there were no real losers because there was more interaction and the debate was not dominated time-wise.
To the losers, I add CNN's panel discussions before, between, and after the debate. They make Phil Simms' NFL color commentary sound like a Feynman lecture by comparison.
My final debate impact rankings:
1. Ted Cruz
2. Marco Rubio
3. Rand Paul
4. Donald Trump
(Tie) 5. Chris Christie
(Tie) 5. Ben Carson
(Tie) 5. Carly Fiorina
8. John Kasich
9. Jeb Bush
I had hoped that this event would bring the public more clarity on the candidates' positions on immigration. To that end, the debate was a great disappointment.
Sadly, the format does not encourage debate and there are simply too many participants. In fact, the undercard debates are much more interesting than the cage match main events.
A big problem with the debate format is that, when someone gets attacked, that person gets more time to respond. That creates stretches where one person gets to dominate the debate. "Winning" the debate is largely a function of how much time you get. Criticizing another candidate's position gives that candidate more time to speak. So the back and forth in the "debate" has to be carefully calculated.
There needs to be a change in the debate format. Specifically:
- The time needs to be more fairly distributed among the candidates.
- There needs to be more time to speak on a single issue.
- There should be fewer questions (and more time).
- There should only be one person asking the questions.
- The questions should be candidate neutral.
I suggest the following procedure given the volume of speakers:
- Debate questions are prepared in advance, with the number of questions equal to the number of candidates.
- A candidate gets a question at random and gets to answer at length.
- A small number of other candidates (2–3), picked at random get to respond (for a shorter period of time).
- The original candidate gets a single, final reply.
That process is repeated so that every candidate ends up with one question and gets the same number of responses to other candidates' questions.