In a shift away from a personality-driven contest, the fourth Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin served to separate electable presidential contenders from political aspirants. Conversant on the U.S. economy and foreign policy, candidates with presidential leadership character and vision for the country’s future prevailed in this round. Debate winners will attract new, deep-pocket donors and expand their support base – a key indicator of transitioning from a viable to formidable candidacy. Coalescing constituencies around their electability is another critical indicator of securing a competitive advantage before the first-in-nation primaries in February 2016.
We ask and answer six questions on the implications of this fourth debate, marking a new phase in testing candidates’ substance, style and stamina.
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Marco Rubio. Laying out the logic of linkage between U.S. economic and military strength set Rubio apart from the rest. Despite Rand Paul’s challenge of Rubio’s conservative fiscal fidelity in funding the U.S. military without adding to the national debt, Rubio homed in on strong U.S. leadership as essential for global stability and economic growth. In dismissing Paul as a “committed isolationist,” Rubio isolated Paul as an outlier in a field where U.S. weakness, perceived or real, is not an option. Ted Cruz’s repartee of imagining a worst-case scenario without U.S. global leadership added an exclamation point on Rubio’s rationale and burnished Cruz’s hawkish national security cred. In challenging Donald Trump on how to handle Russian president Vladimir Putin, Carly Fiorina’s reference to bolstering U.S. alliances in Europe and the Middle East showed the diplomacy dimension of presidential decision-making.
Who played the China card?
Donald Trump and John Kasich on the main stage. Chris Christie in the undercard group.
Trump predictably pinned China as the source of all American economic woes and bilateral trade imbalance – a time-tested tool of campaign rhetoric, as we’ve discussed previously in these pages. Trump’s decision to declare China a currency manipulator on day one of a hypothetical Trump presidency takes a page from Mitt Romney’s playbook – a further confirmation of a Trumpian foreign policy devoid of a credible China strategy. John Kasich and Chris Christie pounded China’s cyberattacks. Kasich cited China’s $50 billion investments in the United States and activities in the South China Sea. While useful for domestic consumption, this approach was a lost opportunity to explain the geopolitical reality of how the next U.S. president should manage U.S.-China relations.
Was the U.S. role in Asia sufficiently explained?
The debate marked the first, albeit cursory discussion among GOP candidates on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement – a key component of U.S. rebalance to Asia. In tragi-comedic fashion, Trump railed against TPP as a disastrous deal for China “to get in through the back door,” though Paul clarified that China is not included in TPP negotiations. While most Americans agree that the TPP benefits the United States, many question the impact on personal finances, wages, and job creation – an issue that merits further discussion in future debates.
Whose stature appeared the most, least and mediocre presidential?
Criteria for presidential stature include 1) adeptly demonstrating policy prowess, 2) succinctly communicating complex ideas, 3) articulating U.S. global leadership and national future, 4) inspiring confidence and trustworthiness, and 5) upholding President Reagan’s 11th commandment of not speaking ill of fellow Republicans, the candidates’ rating below:
Most: Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina, Chris Christie
Least: John Kasich, Bobby Jindal, Donald Trump, Rick Santorum, Rand Paul
Mediocre: Ben Carson, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee
What messaging strategies were effective?
Candidates adeptly employed a suite of messaging strategies that deflected personal attacks and reinforced big-picture themes. Invoking Hillary Clinton as the main adversary in the debate and the general election shifted the focus to a common foe. Chris Christie’s use of this approach deftly defused Bobby Jindal’s “juicebox” retort, which neutralized Jindal’s juvenile joust. Carly Fiorina convincingly contrasted two plausible paths for the future of the United States – socialism vs. democracy – essentially bifurcating the presidential race to two competing visions and systems. All candidates painted the stark consequences of growing the economy and reducing the national deficit for future generations of Americans, which speaks directly to public concerns over the economy, based on Pew Research data.
Looking ahead, what approaches could further differentiate candidates in future debates?
As competition intensifies, further differentiation will be imperative. More depth and dimensionality on U.S. policy toward Asia, which has global, regional, and local impact for all Americans would enhance the debates. Candidates’ positions on the future of U.S.-China strategic relations in the new global economy warrant closer scrutiny.