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GOP Debate Highlights Conservatives’ Philosophical Divisions

Candidates spar over Republican Party’s ideological underpinnings

John Kasich, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Rand Paul
AP
• November 11, 2015 12:14 am

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MILWAUKEE, WISC.—From defense spending to tax policy to financial regulation, the GOP contenders on Tuesday night in Milwaukee split on key issues that have for years divided not just Republican politicians but the party’s intellectual leadership.

The debate focused primarily on economic policy, an area where rival Republican factions generally agree.

However, divisions emerged in an argument over the Child Tax Credit, which Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) says he plans to expand. Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.), a leading voice of the GOP’s libertarian wing, accused Rubio of straying from the ideological line.

"We have to decide what is conservative and what isn’t conservative," Paul said. "Is it fiscally conservative to have a trillion dollar expenditure?"

That is a debate that has played out in conservative circles over the past few years as its intellectual leaders hammer out the details of a new ideological brand commonly called Reform Conservatism. The argument pits a vision of conservatism as fiscal frugality against one that sees it as the promotion of institutions and civil society.

"I have a child tax credit increase, I am proud of it," Rubio declared. "I have a pro-family tax plan. It will strengthen the most important institution in the country, the family."

In a debate focused on the economy, Paul and Rubio also diverged on military intervention and defense spending.

"Rand is a committed isolationist. I’m not," Rubio declared. "I believe the world is a stronger and a better place when the United States is the strongest military power in the world."

Paul has long toed the libertarian line on defense spending, U.S. military intervention, and controversial U.S. intelligence gathering tools. Rubio is seen as a leading Republican hawk and has advocated more aggressive military postures toward the Islamic State, Russia, and other geopolitical foes.

According to Republican pollster Frank Luntz, Rubio got the better of the exchange.

"Marco Rubio just crushed Rand Paul. 20 of our #GOPDebate group picked Rubio, 7 picked Rand," Luntz said on Twitter, referring to his style of scored focus groups. "‘America must be strongest’ hit 90 on the dials," Luntz wrote.

As a voice for a more restrained U.S. foreign policy, Paul was a lonely voice on the debate stage. Candidates beyond Rubio touted policies more in line with the GOP’s traditional advocacy of power projection, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas), who interjected with a "middle ground" on the debate.

"You think defending this nation is expensive, try not defending it. That’s a lot more expensive," Cruz quipped. "But can you do that and pay for it. You can do that and also be fiscally responsible."

Cruz also sparred with Ohio Gov. John Kasich over bank bailouts, an issue that has divided Republicans since the financial crisis of 2008 and resurfaced recently as the Troubled Asset Relief Program became a stand-in in some conservative circles for heavy-handed government intervention in the economy.

Cruz likened financial regulators to Platonic "Philosopher Kings trying to guess what is happening with the economy." Asked point blank whether he would bail out Bank of America if it were on the verge of collapse today, Cruz said he would not.

Kasich challenged what he characterized as a position divorced from financial reality. "When a bank is ready to go under and depositors are getting ready to lose their life savings, you just don’t say we believe in philosophical concerns," he said.

That is a debate that has dogged Republicans, many of whom voted for TARP, since the federal government propped up major Wall Street banks in 2008. It resurfaced recently when Speaker of the House Paul Ryan was forced to defend his vote for TARP.

Ryan has tried to straddle the Republican divide, saying he disagreed with the measure but voted for it in order to head off further losses that would give Democrats the political capital to remake the American financial system.

"In order to prevent a depression and a complete evisceration of the free market system we have, I think it was necessary," Ryan has said.

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