GOP Debate: Candidates bicker over true conservative policies

Donald Trump in Spin Room
Donald Trump talks with media following Tuesday's GOP debate in Milwaukee. (Raquel Zaldivar/MEDILL)

By Misha Euceph, Jane Hao and Jasmine M. Ellis

MILWAUKEE — After four debates, Republicans found themselves back at square one. This was the case at the Nov. 11 debate hosted by Fox Business Network and the Wall Street Journal not because of the lack of a clear front-runner, but because the most heated discussion at the Milwaukee Theatre centered around what it means to to be a Conservative and what policies characterize a Conservative politician.

Although Sen. Rand Paul and Sen. Marco Rubio started the conversation around the meaning of conservatism, Gov. Jeb Bush, Gov. John Kasich, Sen. Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson brought up the question when talking about immigration and defense spending, illustrating the change in the Republican stance on the two issues since President Ronald Reagan’s time.

Sen. Paul brought up defense spending in response to Sen. Rubio’s tax plan, stating, “We have to decide what is Conservative.”

Paul separated himself from the other main-stage candidates by asking, “Is it fiscally Conservative to have a trillion-dollar expenditure?” Referring to military spending, Paul told Rubio, “You cannot be a Conservative if you’re going to keep promoting new programs that you’re not going to pay for.”

Rubio responded, “I believe the world is a stronger and safer place when the United States is the strongest military power in the world.” He appeared to suggest that Paul wanted to decrease the strength of the military.

Rand Paul Interview
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul stoked contention over the meaning of Conservatism during the Republican debate Tuesday night. He’s seen here begin interviewed after the debate. (Raquel Zaldivar/MEDILL)

Surprisingly, Paul and Rubio actually seem to agree on maintaining the strength of the military.

According to Paul’s website, he “believes in Ronald Reagan’s ‘Peace through Strength.’” The peace through strength doctrine states that strong arms are necessary to maintaining peace. Paul does, however, support cutting spending in all areas, including the military. At the debate, he said, “I want a strong national defense, but I don’t want us to be bankrupt.”

The notion of cutting military spending differs significantly from Reagan’s policies, as Reagan increased military spending dramatically, reaching “a peak of $465.5 billion in 1987 (in projected 2005 dollars), compared with $325.1 billion in 1980,” according to the Washington Post and the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Cruz attempted to bridge the gap between the two candidates, but ended up echoing Rubio’s position, saying, “There’s a middle ground that brings both of these things together. You think that defending this nation is expensive. Try not defending them.”

Medill Reporter Jane Hao asks Trump to clarify his comments on China after Tuesday’s debate. (Jane Hao/Medill)

Increasing defense spending resonated with other candidates, including Donald Trump, who said, “We have to make our military bigger, better, and stronger than before so no one can mess with us.”

But defense spending was not the only issue where the candidates differed on the meaning of Conservative.

Professor Dick Simpson, head of the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago, explains, “There is a split between those who still follow more or less Ronald Reagan policies… and the Tea Party conservatives. They tend to take harder positions on issues like immigration and the budget.”

This split became more apparent in the debate’s discussion surrounding immigration. Trump stood firmly in the anti-immigration camp, invoking the idea that immigration threatens the sovereignty of the United States. He said, “We have no choice if we are going to run our country properly and we are going to be a country.”

As far as a specific solution to stopping illegal immigration, Trump suggested a wall, saying, “If you think walls don’t work, ask Israel.”

‘There is a split between those who still follow more or less Ronald Reagan policies… and the Tea Party conservatives. They tend to take harder positions on issues like immigration and the budget.’

— Prof. Dick Simpson

John Kasich supported Trump’s position on border security, stating, “We need to control our border, just like people have to control what goes in and out of the house.”

Kasich, however, called Trump out for suggesting he would deport 11 million undocumented immigrants.

“Think about the families; think about the children,” Kasich said. “Come on, folks, we know you can’t pick them up and ship them across the border… It’s not an adult argument.”

Similarly Cruz, who was born in Canada to an American mother and Cuban immigrant father, took a moderate approach, stating that, “We can embrace legal immigration while believing in the rule of law.”

Kasich’s and Cruz’s stances on immigration in the debate came closest to Reagan-era Conservative values. Reagan granted amnesty, or legal status, to more than three million illegal immigrants in 1986 in exchange for stricter border controls and penalties in the Immigration Reform and Control Act.

Jeb Bush, considered a more moderate, Reagan-like Conservative, contributed little to the immigration discussion, only warning that harsh immigration policies will push immigrant voters closer to the Democrats. Rubio, a Cuban-American and child of immigrants, did not address the immigration issue head-on at Tuesday’s debate.

Despite varying opinions on core positions such as immigration and defense spending, a clear narrative emerged during the fourth debate. “There’s a split in the Republican party and a fight over what conservative means,” said Simpson.

PHOTO AT TOP: Donald Trump talks with media following Tuesday’s GOP debate in Milwaukee. (Raquel Zaldivar/MEDILL)