Friday, January 29, 2016

Debate Recap: Important Things That Went Unsaid

Last night's Republican debate was perhaps the least strategically interesting of the season, and not just because one of the more strategically interesting candidates declined to attend. With a few minor exceptions, the remaining candidates did not engage each other extensively, and the moderators frequently lobbed single questions at specific candidates before moving on without asking others to respond. Marco Rubio continues to be engaged in a two-front war with Ted Cruz on one side and Jeb Bush on the other, but that was already obvious before the debate (especially for those of us living in a media market that encompasses the state of New Hampshire; if you thought you'd never see an ad suggesting that Cruz was actually a closet socialist, prepare to be surprised).

One brief moment, however, struck me as revealing—not about any of the candidates in particular, but with respect to the Republican Party as a whole. Bret Baier asked Chris Christie about his plans to cut federal spending, noting that many Republicans promise to shrink the size of government on the campaign trail but fail to do so once elected. "Can you name even one thing that the federal government does now," Baier asked, "that it should not do at all?"

Christie adroitly chose to answer by pledging to eliminate federal funding of Planned Parenthood, a currently popular conservative objective, and responded to Baier's followup query of "anything bigger than that?" by arguing that nothing could be bigger than "thousands upon thousands upon thousands of children being murdered in the womb." But Baier's question raised perhaps the central chronic difficulty that Republican politicians face: how to fulfill conservative demands for a smaller, less onerous government without cutting programs and policies that most voters like, and Christie's answer did not fully address this dilemma. (Whatever the other merits of defunding Planned Parenthood, doing so will not itself balance the budget.)

Even Ted Cruz, who portrays himself as the conservative conscience of the Senate, responded to a subsequent Baier question about health care by sidestepping the issue of whether his plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act would deprive millions of Americans of the coverage expansion provided by the law. Cruz mentioned several conservative health care reform ideas—selling health insurance across state lines, expanding health savings accounts, severing insurance from employment—but policy experts do not believe that these measures would expand coverage to most of the citizens who gained insurance under the ACA. Cruz, too, recognizes the political dangers that lurk in committing oneself too explicitly to the revocation of existing government benefits.

It's too bad that this debate, just like most of the other Republican debates this year, devoted so little time to the issues of taxes, spending, health care, and other forms of domestic policy, given their centrality to the interests of voters and the actual responsibilities of the federal government. But if the current rise of ideological purism in the Republican Party is at least partially due to the gap between the ambitious campaign promises and modest governing record of GOP officeholders, the current set of candidates seems unlikely to resolve this tension by applying their general anti-government rhetoric to the specific government programs that constitute the bulk of the federal budget.