When presidential debate moderators disclaim their own factual knowledge, and refuse to correct erroneous or dishonest answers, it falls to other candidates to step into the breach.
But what happens when other candidates are too ill-briefed to correct their competitors, or too tempted by the incentive to out-deceive or out-exaggerate them, to keep things tempered?
The debate in Milwaukee on Tuesday night met just about every Republican demand: open-ended questions, pliant moderators, complacent candidates. But it did not wear well. Jeb Bush, an exception to this overall dynamic, tried to bring a modicum of sobriety to the discussion by scolding his unrealistic adversaries. “They’re doing high-fives in the Clinton campaign right now when they hear this,” he said. Republicans should have listened to him.
When Donald Trump promised (again) to round up and deport millions of unauthorized immigrants, both John Kasich and Bush stepped in to point out how implausible and inhumane such a plan would be. But arguably Kasich and Bush are stuck in the polling doldrums precisely because they take a realistic view of immigration policy.
Ted Cruz ultimately chimed in on Trump’s behalf with a canned response—“The Democrats are laughing, because if Republicans join Democrats as the party of amnesty, we will lose”—and was met with tremendous applause.
Likewise, when Rand Paul noted, correctly, that Marco Rubio’s fiscal priorities—trillions in new spending on defense and child tax credits—don’t square with his promise to simultaneously reduce tax revenues by trillions of dollars, Rubio responded by defending the virtues of families and American security.
As the debate wound down, Cruz recited two particularly reckless views: his support for the gold standard, and an absolute foreclosure on bank bailouts, no matter how dire the circumstances. Kasich called out Cruz’s economic imprudence, but in linking the discussion to the harm that might befall the middle class, Kasich and Cruz both seemingly forgot that bank deposits in the U.S. are federally insured.
No candidate supported a minimum wage increase. Ben Carson tarted up his opposition with a correlation between minimum wage increases and high unemployment that does not exist.
Carly Fiorina responded to a question about the labor market’s relative strength under Democratic administrations by baldly asserting the country’s economic problems actually worsen under Democratic presidents. (They don’t.) Rand Paul responded to a question about the Obama-era energy boom by promising to repeal Obama-era regulations that clearly didn’t destroy the U.S. energy market.
Carson and Fiorina mimicked Rubio’s biggest applause line from the last debate, calling Hillary Clinton a liar—a guaranteed winner before Republican audiences, but an accusation none of the candidates have gamed out as a general election attack or imagined defending in a general election debate.
Tonight we saw the Republican id nearly unbridled. After the debate, the candidates streamed into the spin room to gush over the moderators’ performance. They were thrilled. But Bush was also right. Democrats were surely thrilled as well.