The primary news story to emerge from Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate was the absence of Donald Trump. Trump chose to boycott the debate due to an ongoing feud with Fox News; instead, he hosted an event at Drake University to raise money for veterans.
Without Trump, many said the debate was actually substantial. Candidates discussed the issues, policies, and their ideas without engaging in personal attacks (Trump’s favorite tactic). Yet how accurate is this assessment?
Great debate. Refreshing to hear the issues. I think voters won tonight. #GOPdebate— Dana Loesch (@DLoesch) January 29, 2016
Not very. Although the candidates focused a bit more on policy and less on the personal, the atmosphere was similar to that of every other Republican debate. Sen. Ted Cruz set the tone for the night as he opened with this remark: “Now, secondly, let me say I'm a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat, and ugly. And Ben, you're a terrible surgeon. Now that we've gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way...”
Candidates would not stop mentioning Trump. Marco Rubio called him the “greatest show on Earth,” Jeb Bush sarcastically referred to him as a “little teddy bear,” and later refuted his anti-immigrant rhetoric. Even moderators kept shaping questions around his controversial statements. If everyone had ignored Trump altogether—because that’s what he deserves—it might have been a more powerful strategy. Yet, his presence was clearly felt in the room, even in his physical absence.
In terms of discussing actual issues of policy, candidates essentially divulged no new information. Cruz continued promoting his unfeasible and morally reprehensible strategy to “carpet bomb” ISIS, citing the first Persian Gulf war as an example of this approach being successful. As a CNN fact check pointed out, the U.S. did not use carpet bombing during the first Persian Gulf war:
“Cruz is wrong in his characterization of the Gulf War bombing campaign. The air attacks conducted during the Gulf War were precision-targeted, with laser-guided bombs designed to hit enemy fighters and minimize collateral damage. That is the mirror opposite of carpet bombing.”
Cruz also offered up the usual platitudes of Obamacare as a “job killer,” although this was also fact-checked as false.
In lieu of attacking Trump, candidates began to attack Cruz, calling out his hypocritical voting record. Rubio claimed that “the only budget that Ted has ever voted for is a budget that Rand Paul sponsored that brags about cutting defense spending,” while Rand Paul brought up Cruz’s fluctuating views toward amnesty (a topic that Cruz has been especially crafty in discussing).
Cruz, very early on, complained about this: “Chris, I would note that that the last four questions have been, "Rand, please attack Ted. Marco, please attack Ted. Chris, please attack Ted. Jeb, please attack Ted..."
There was more civility in this debate than prior ones with Trump, but the way the candidates behaved was largely the same. Many of the arguments hinged on breaking down other candidates’ voting records and policies—it still felt incredibly negative.
The discourse was not much more substantial than previous debates, and we learned very little new information from the candidates. Trump shifted the tone of Republican discourse from the moment he announced his candidacy, and those implications remain, even in his absence.
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