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Scholars: Fox Biz did its job, debate highlighted political differences

Kasich, Bush, Rubio, Trump, Carson, Cruz, Fiorina and Paul before the debate held by Fox Business Network, November 10 2015. REUTERS/Jim Young

Eight candidates came together in Milwaukee for the fourth GOP prime time debate on Tuesday. The event followed weeks of squabbling over questions and format, and how moderators should behave. We asked two political scholars to weigh in on the quality of the debate – and what they learned about the candidates’ positions on issues.

Andra Gillespie, Emory University

Smaller field served the candidates well

The moderators at Fox Business clearly learned from the mistakes of CNBC and ran a much better debate. The moderators maintained their control, gave candidates time to speak, and asked mostly substantive questions. Cutting the number of candidates on the main debate stage to eight from 10 also helped the debate flow by giving candidates more time to talk and affording them an opportunity to stake out distinct positions for themselves.

Throughout the campaign, many have characterized the GOP field as a contrast between experienced candidates and outsiders who owe their candidacies to the Tea Party’s articulation of general frustration with the status quo.

That cleavage is important, but the smaller field in tonight’s debate amplified the reality that there are other, cross-cutting splits in this candidate field.

Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina may be the outsiders, but they have different views on foreign policy and defense, with Fiorina clearly being more hawkish.

Marco Rubio and Rand Paul may both have legislative experience and a history of Tea Party support, but Paul’s consistently Libertarian views distinguish him from Rubio, who made a case for government spending to strengthen institutions conservatives like to support, like families and the military.

While neither Jeb Bush nor John Kasich had a stellar performance, these two establishment candidates staked out different positions on banking reform: Bush focused on deregulation, while Kasich focused on pragmatic responses to crises.

In a recent piece in The Conversation, Matthew Jordan lamented the fact that debates have become profit-driven sideshows devoid of substance.

While this election season’s debates have been exceedingly entertaining, I would argue that the Fox Business debate was well organized and adeptly moderated. It did a decent job of cutting through the spectacle and revealing policy stances.

Attentive viewers who are either undecided about their primary vote or who may be looking to line up a second choice if their preferred candidate drops out could actually use these two hours to help them make their decision.

Andra Gillespie is an associate professor of political science at Emory University. She is the author of The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark and Post-Racial America.

Tom Whalen, Boston University

Wake me when it’s over

For a presidential debate that was supposed to be solely about economic issues, Tuesday night’s showdown between the major Republican candidates had a lot to say about foreign policy.

“Our goal is not to contain [ISIS], but destroy them before they destroy us,” GOP front runner Ben Carson said.

Looking more confident and relaxed than he he’s been in all three of the previous presidential debates, Jeb Bush claimed he would impose a no-fly zone in Syria and establish safe areas for all the refugees in the war-torn region.

Leave it to The Donald to rain on their interventionist parade. “We can’t continue to be the policeman to the world,” he claimed while also adding that he thought it was a good thing for Russian president Vladimir Putin to militarily engage ISIS in Syria as it would save the US from doing so itself.

This neo-isolationist sentiment apparently was too much for Bush as he delivered perhaps the best line of his overall lackluster campaign to date. “We’re not the world’s policeman. We have to play a role in this.”

Still, for all the sturm and drang over national defense, Carson registered the best sound bite of the evening when he thanked one of the moderators for not “asking me what I did in the 10th grade.” If only they did. Then this otherwise dull and insipid affair would have been really interesting.

Tom Whalen is an Associate Professor of Social Sciences at Boston University. He is the author of JFK and His Enemies: A Portrait of Power.

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