On Thursday, Republican presidential contenders met in North Charleston, South Carolina, for their last debate before the Iowa caucuses on February 1. Below, read the top highlights from the debate and follow along live at our blog Minutes.
The Candidates Are Treating the Iranian “Hostage” Situation Like the New Benghazi
On Tuesday, two U.S. Navy ships and ten sailors were detained after drifting into Iran’s territorial waters. It was a diplomatic issue that was defused safely and quickly, but Ted Cruz and Chris Christie framed it as a deep humiliation for the country. As Alex Shephard put it:
Ted Cruz, asked a question about the economy, immediately pivoted to talking about Iran, and promised that as commander in chief that any nation (read: Iran) that did something similar would “feel the fury” (read: carpet bomb) of American power.
“No service man or service woman will be forced to be on their knees and any nation that captures our fighting men and women will feel the full force and fury of the United States of America,” Cruz said. Both Cruz and later Christie used the incident as evidence of the fact that President Obama has allowed Iran to push the country around, playing into a wider theme in the debate that the status of the U.S.A. has slipped.
But the handling of the situation actually demonstrates that relations with Iran are the most calm and mature they have been in recent history, not that we are on the brink of war. “If anything, the issue with the sailors exemplifies why diplomacy works,” wrote Shephard. Still, Iran is a big issue for the GOP at the moment—much bigger than for the Democrats. A September survey showed that while seven in ten Democrats supported the Iran nuclear deal, seven in ten Republicans were opposed.
Ted Cruz Shrugs Off His Goldman Loan Mishap
Early in the debate, Cruz was asked to defend his latest controversy: that he did not report a loan from his wife’s employer, Wall Street behemoth Goldman Sachs, for his 2012 Senate campaign. Cruz deftly dodged the question, and took the opportunity to launch a tirade against the mainstream media, Hillary Clinton, and silly paperwork errors all in one go.
Cruz called the New York Times loan story a hit piece and complained that the editorial board had compared him to a demon. He then insisted he had to take the loan, because unlike Hillary, he doesn’t have “masses of money in the bank.” Then, he explained that he merely did not file the source of the loan with the correct authority, the Federal Election Commission, a mistake Cruz shrugged off. “I made a paperwork error … but if that’s the best hit the New York Times has got, they better go back to the well.”
Donald Trump and Ted Cruz Go Toe to Toe on the “Birther” Issue
Legal experts agree that Ted Cruz is probably fine. Still, Cruz jumped at the chance to flex his collegiate debate muscles, fielding with skill Trump’s line that Cruz’s allegedly uncertain status could result in a lawsuit. As Alex Shephard writes, “He patiently responded to a few of Trump’s more bombastic attacks and patiently raised doubts about the credibility of his experts. Trump got flustered and seemed like he might fly off the handle in a couple of instances.”
The candidates also quarreled over the polls. Trump cited his own positive poll numbers, paraphrasing a headline: “Trump way up, Cruz going down.” Cruz quipped, “Since September, the Constitution hasn’t changed, but the poll numbers have.”
The exchange was underscored by a steady stream of boos from the audience and Trump ended it with a promise that sounded a bit more like a threat: “I’m not bringing a suit, I promise … But the Democrats will sue.”
Trump’s Rivals do a Trump-Lite on Refugees
In response to Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the U.S., moderators asked each candidate, “Do you agree that we should pause Muslim immigration until we get a better handle on our homeland security situation?” The answers from Trump’s rivals included fear-mongery, abstract declarations about keeping out the bad, and specific policy proposals.
Kasich said he would put a pause on Syrian refugees, because as of now, we don’t have a good process to vet them. Christie also said no Syrian refugees “of any kind” should be allowed in the country.
According to Rubio, the refugee crisis should follow a “very simple equation.” “If we do not know who you are and we do not know why you are coming, when I am president you are not getting into the United States of America,” he said.
From Cruz’s perspective, we need a president who is “focused like a laser” on evaluating the threat posed by refugees and ISIS. He wants to suspend any refugees from nations in which ISIS controls significant territory.
Carson thinks the United States needs to come up with new guidelines for immigration, he just didn’t say what those guidelines should be. And in Syria, refugees should stay put, because according to Carson, we can protect them there. “As far as the Syrians are concerned, Al-Hasakah province, perfect place. They have infrastructure. All we need to do is protect them, they will be in their own country,” he said.
Bush was something of an exception, saying he hoped Trump would reconsider his position on Muslims. “We don’t have to have refugees come to our country, but all Muslims, seriously? What kind of signal does that send to the rest of the world that the United States is a serious player in creating peace and security?”
Donald Trump Thinks that “Police are the Most Mistreated People in This Country”
Trump arrived at this conclusion after a meandering back and forth with Jeb Bush about Trump’s comments on banning Muslims from entering the country.
“We have a serious problem with, as you know, with radical Islam,” Trump said, questioning why no one had called the police on the San Bernardino shooters. “Many people saw pipe bombs and all sorts of things all over their apartment. Why weren’t they vigilant? Why didn’t they call? Why didn’t they call the police?”
“And by the way, the police are the most mistreated people in this country. I will tell you that.”
Even though he was in the same town where Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, was fatally shot in the back by a police officer, Trump appeared to be speaking without a trace of irony.
Trump’s comment, an oblique reference to Black Lives Matter and the so-called “Ferguson Effect,” pandered to those who don’t believe that police brutality is a problem, and who believe that people who do think police brutality is a problem must be completely against all police. “Once again, Trump has simply made explicit the subtext of an argument that has already taken on prominence in our politics,” wrote Steven Cohen.