Jeb Bush’s best moment in a presidential debate so far came Tuesday night when he did what he promised to do long before he was a formal candidate: stick by his principles even if it means upsetting Republican primary voters.
Bush delivered an impassioned defense of immigration, an issue so toxic with much of the conservative base that on the debate stage it seemed to cleave the primary race into two camps — one with candidates like Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who staked out a relatively moderate position, and another with candidates like real-estate tycoon Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who endorsed far harsher enforcement.
“Twelve million illegal immigrants, to send them back, 500,000 a month, is just not — not possible,” Bush said. “And it’s not embracing American values. And it would tear communities apart. And it would send a signal that we’re not the kind of country that I know America is.”
“And even having this conversation sends a powerful signal — they’re doing high-fives in the Clinton campaign right now when they hear this,” Bush added, to applause. A Hillary Clinton aide did, in fact, confirm high-fives on Twitter.
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Cruz thundered in response: “The Democrats are laughing, because if Republicans join Democrats as the party of amnesty, we will lose.... We should enforce the law. We’re tired of being told it’s anti-immigrant. It’s offensive.”
The exchange, which began with Trump, continued with Kasich and concluded with Bush and Cruz, might have been the most revealing of the fourth Republican primary debate, which took place in Milwaukee and was hosted by Fox Business Network and the Wall Street Journal. It focused on the economy and tried — and succeeded — at giving candidates more time to lay out their policy positions. None of the candidates supported raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, with Trump uttering the phrase “taxes too high, wages too high” and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio declaring that relying on minimum-wage hikes to fuel the economy would be a “disaster.”
Early on in the debate, the candidates had more chances to deliver talking points rather than actually debate, though things warmed up as the faceoff moved into its second hour.
Twelve million illegal immigrants, to send them back, 500,000 a month, is just not — not possible.
Immigration was the first issue that prompted fire, though one of the three moderators, Gerard Baker of the Journal, cut it off before Rubio — the only candidate on stage who sponsored immigration-reform legislation in Congress — could weigh in. And Rubio, who remembers tea-party conservatives accusing him of betrayal over his bill, didn’t jump in.
Still, Rubio, who impressed Republicans with his performance at the last debate two weeks ago, had another strong night, as did Cruz and Trump. Only one rival, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, took Rubio on directly, questioning his conservative credentials when Rubio deflected a moderator’s inquiry about his tax plan resulting in the ballooning of the national debt.
“We have to decide what is conservative and what isn’t conservative,” Paul said. “You can’t be a conservative if you’re going to keep promoting programs you’re not going to pay for.”
We can’t even have an economy if we’re not safe.
Rubio used his debate skills to turn the discussion into Paul’s foreign-policy proposals, accusing him of being a “committed isolationist” and creating an opening for himself to defend his own hawkish views: “We can’t even have an economy if we’re not safe,” Rubio said, raising his voice. “Yes, I believe — no, I know — that the world is a safer and better place when America is the strongest military power in the world.”
Cruz, who ahead of the debate had labeled Rubio a “moderate,” steered clear of engaging his rival head on, though his immigration remark — and a later comment about doing away with sugar subsidies — were clearly aimed at his fellow Cuban-American senator, the man Cruz could end up facing if the GOP race eventually gets whittled down to two.
Bush, sinking in early polls, had a different mission Tuesday: to reassure donors worried that another poor performance by the former Florida governor would leave little time to turn around in the long 35 days until the next debate.
After his lackluster performance two weeks ago, Bush hired a coach and backed off his short-lived tactic to attack Rubio, a far more comfortable debater, on stage.
“I don’t think we need an agitator-in-chief,” Bush said in his closing remarks, in an apparent reference to frontrunner Trump. Bush had even managed to crack a joke, calling Trump a “generous man” for letting him get a word in edgewise. And Bush made sure to name Clinton over and over again, trying to sound like a leading candidate instead of one embattled in the primary.
Still, Bush failed to interject himself forcefully into several exchanges that appeared ripe for interruption Tuesday night. Yet having fewer candidates on stage — eight instead of 10 or 11 — and more time to respond and rebut to questions seemed to help Bush warm up.
“I got about four minutes in the last debate,” Bush said. “I’m going to get my question now.”