Third GOP debate: Two big things that could shake up the Republican race

GOP debate candidates

Two important things happened at the third Republican debate. First, Jeb Bush shot himself in the foot trying to recast himself as an Alpha male and going on the offensive against Senator Marco Rubio. Second, the political outsiders were finally shown to be ill equipped to occupy the Oval Office. Both developments could shake up the race.

It was do or die for Jeb Bush as the candidates took the stage in Boulder, Colorado. Under enormous pressure because of dropping poll numbers, Jeb Bush did not score the comeback hit he so hoped for at the third Republican debate. This – a forum focused on economic policy – should have been a great opportunity for the cerebral and wonkish Mr. Bush to reboot his campaign.

Instead, while he held his own discussing growth and tax plans, the soundbite of the night was his ill-advised attack on his former friend and colleague Marco Rubio, whom he chastised for missing numerous Senate votes while out on the campaign trail. This, after Rubio had skillfully deflected the criticism, raised by an editorial in a Florida newspaper, by pointing out that the same paper had endorsed both John Kerry and Barack Obama during their presidential runs, despite their numerous no-shows on Senate votes. Bush was booed by the largely respectful audience; he will fall further behind.

Bush’s poor night contrasted to the success of others – like John Kasich, Chris Christie, Rubio and Ted Cruz – whose governing or legislative backgrounds informed and bolstered their arguments. Because the debate delved deep into economic policies, this was the first time that the lack of political experience of outsiders like Donald Trump, Ben Carson or Carly Fiorina was a handicap.

Because the debate delved deep into economic policies, this was the first time that the lack of political experience of outsiders like Donald Trump, Ben Carson or Carly Fiorina was a handicap.

Trump was unusually civil but thin on facts. When questioned once again about his multiple bankruptcies, Trump argued that mastery of the bankruptcy process had worked well for him and his family, and that it would work just as well for the country. This was a headscratcher.

Ben Carson appeared at sea as talk about entitlements and visas swirled about him. Asked about soaring drug prices, Carson replied that companies “sometimes go overboard to make profits, and don’t think much about the American people,” but overall blasted the cost of regulations.

Carly Fiorina was her usual tough-minded and convincing self, though once again she was forced to defend her record at Hewlett-Packard, and more than once fell back on platitudes about leadership and the evils of Big Government.

Both Rand Paul and Governor Mike Huckabee hit a few high notes, but it is harder and harder to imagine either one staying the course.

The theme of the third Republican debate was meant to be the economy, and indeed the nine candidates in the main forum (there was an earlier session with four contestants – former Governor George Pataki, Former Senator Rick Santorum, Senator Lindsey Graham and Governor Bobby Jindal) talked a good deal about cutting taxes and shrinking the size of the federal government.  

Every candidate has a plan to encourage growth and help the middle class. The CNBC hosts tried to drill down on whose plans were the most fiscally responsible, insisting, for instance Ben Carson’s proposed 10% tax rate would open up a $2 trillion hole in the budget. Carson pushed back, suggesting that he had actually advocated a 15 percent rate – a scheme that Kasich described as a “fantasy.” Since everybody’s numbers differed, viewers are to be excused if their eyes glazed over.

Still, the various proposals represented a healthy contrast to the talking points of the Democrat debate, during which Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders competed to see who could toss away more taxpayer money.

The Republicans also discussed entitlement reform. They all had a vision of how to secure the future of Social Security and Medicare – topics that the Democrats refuse to address.

Most of the candidates talked about the necessity of means testing the vulnerable programs; Ben Carson goes further, proposing a possible system of individual family programs instead of Medicare from which he says people could “opt out.”

Drawing on his successes as governor of Ohio, and by pitching himself as the most pragmatic candidate in the race, John Kasich had a very good night.  He boasted about his programs to reduce student indebtedness in Ohio (by cutting university costs, tying loans to graduations, and proposing to expand online education), and to having reduced the growth rate of Medicaid in Ohio from 10 percent to 2.5 percent without taking people off the roles or cutting services. He also talked about the need to create incentives to keep people healthy, as opposed to simply treating those who are sick.

Huckabee pursued that theme as well, more than once talking about the importance of attacking the four diseases that account for 85% of the cost of Medicare. He has a point.

Cruz hit hard on Democrats’ claims of helping women, noting that during Obama’s time in office 3.7 million women entered poverty and that median wages for females have fallen.

Rubio  was asked about his support of the H1B visa program; he countered by saying that any company found to have cheated (by substituting foreign workers for Americans) should be permanently barred from using the program and also that any job openings should be advertised for 180 days before any foreigners are hired.

As much as the nine candidates took on financial and economic issues, they also took on the moderators, and the media in general.

Over and over they pushed back on questions considered “nasty” by Donald Trump or “ridiculous” according to Chris Christie or "not a cage match" by Ted Cruz and the audience seemed to agree.

The CNBC moderators tried to engage the debaters in combat, asking Kasich to attack rivals on various issues and going after weaknesses across the board. Their tone was, as Ted Cruz pointed out, very different from the lovefest of the Democratic debate.

Rubio pursued this attack, saying that “Democrats have the ultimate SuperPac – the mainstream media.”  He noted that most news organizations ignored Hillary Clinton’s emails that exposed her as lying about the cause of the Benghazi attacks – emailed which surfaced last week during the House Select Committee hearings. Absolutely correct.

Overall, the GOP candidates proved they have plenty of fodder for contesting the economic nostrums of Hillary Clinton come the general election. Slow growth, mountains of regulations, insolvent entitlements programs, rising income inequality, possibly dangerous loose monetary policy, rising taxes and towering national indebtedness – these are the leavings of seven years of Obama’s economic policies. Amazingly, those are the policies that Hillary Clinton promises to pursue.  Good news for Republicans.

Liz Peek is a writer who contributes frequently to She is a financial columnist who also writes for The Fiscal Times. For more visit Follow her on Twitter@LizPeek.