If you only watched the three-hour, 11-candidate Republican debate on CNN last week, you missed something valuable. The preliminary forum among four bottom-rung candidates offered a clearer picture of some strategic and policy fault lines inside the GOP coalition that are shaping the party’s presidential nomination contest and its general election prospects.
The main debate was as much about personalities and personal attacks, though it included substantive disagreements about religious liberty vs. the rule of law, immigration and Russian aggression. The undercard forum, after some inevitable talk about Donald Trump, evolved into a spirited and sometimes bluntly argued conversation that highlighted different shades of conservatism and competing ideas about how Republicans should govern and campaign.
In some ways, the early debate proved to be, if not better television, a more enlightening window into the state of the GOP.
The four men on stage — South Carolina U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former New York governor George Pataki and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum — share a wealth of experience in elective politics. Jindal and Santorum are farthest to the right, though hardly in lockstep on issues. Graham is a pragmatic conservative. Pataki comes out of the largely extinct, Northeastern moderate wing of the party.
Among the GOP’s internal debates is the question of how much the party must expand its coalition to win the White House. The issue of immigration most often highlights this internal conflict. Graham, long an advocate for comprehensive reform that includes a path to citizenship, has warned that Republicans face long-term decline if they can’t win more Hispanic votes. Jindal and Santorum see it differently. Santorum even calls for imposing limits on legal immigration.
But the undercard debate put a focus on the question of whether Republican economic policies are preventing the party from attracting more voters. One of the most interesting exchanges came when Santorum parted company with Jindal and with Graham on raising the minimum wage. Graham opposed it. Santorum supported it, both as a matter of economic equity and as a political imperative for a party seeking more support from working-class voters.
“If you’re a waitress out there wanting more money,” Graham said, “I’m not going to increase the minimum wage, I’m going to try to create an environment where somebody else will open up a restaurant across the street to hire you away at a higher rate, or they'll have to pay you more to keep you.”
Santorum responded by reminding Graham that the percentage of workers who earn the minimum wage is tiny — about 4 percent of all hourly paid workers and fewer than 3 percent of wage and salary workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Pew Research Center.
“Republicans don’t believe in a floor wage in America,” Santorum said. “Fine, you go ahead and make that case to the American public, I’m not going to. Not from a party that supported bailouts for financial institutions I didn’t, but this party did. Not from a party that supports special interest tax provisions for a whole bunch of other businesses, and, but, when it comes to hardworking Americans who are at the bottom of the income scale, we can’t provide some level of income support?”
Santorum argued that a party that prides itself for defending small business owners should begin to pay more attention to the overwhelming majority of people who do not own a business but work for someone else. He recalled the 2012 GOP convention, where speaking spots were given to small business owners in a rebuttal to President Obama, who had said, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.”
Santorum didn’t begrudge the attacks on Obama. “But you know what we didn’t do?” he said at the debate. “We didn’t bring one worker on that stage. How are you going to win, ladies and gentlemen? How are we going to win if 90 percent of Americans don’t think we care at all?”
The minimum wage is part of a much larger debate between the two parties about economic policy priorities. Democrats are focused on income and wealth inequality. Graham said in the debate that Hillary Rodham Clinton has a list of proposals “a mile long” to help the middle class. Some GOP presidential candidates have said policies to enhance social and economic mobility are a priority, but so far there’s been scant time spent talking about them.
The most arresting exchange came near the end of the preliminary debate, when Jindal and Graham traded arguments spelling out the intraparty tensions now before Congress as conservatives press for defunding of Planned Parenthood, even at the expense of another government shutdown.
Jindal spoke for the frustrated conservative base of the party, those who feel betrayed by their leaders’ failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act or enact other conservative measures long promised by GOP candidates in their campaigns. Jindal focused his ire on the inability of Republicans to find a way to block the new nuclear agreement with Iran but went to make the larger point.
Obama has let the rest of the world walk all over him, Jindal said. “The only group he’s able to out-negotiate are the Senate Republicans.” Turning to Graham, he said, “Will the Senate Republicans — they still have time — are they willing to use the nuclear option, meaning get rid of the filibusters, to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power? Now is the time for the Senate Republicans to stand up and fight. We are tired of the establishment saying there’s nothing we can do.”
Graham offered the rebuttal of a practical politician. He argued that the only way to get rid of Obamacare or to defund Planned Parenthood is to elect a conservative Republican as president. As for eliminating the filibuster to block the nuclear deal, he argued that it was a shortsighted tactic that could, ironically, result in giving Obama more power over Congress during his final months in office.
Jindal fired back: “I wish Republicans in D.C. had half the fight of the Senate Democrats to get rid of Obamacare, to defund Planned Parenthood. If we can’t defund Planned Parenthood now, if we can’t stand for innocent human life after these barbaric videos, it is time to be done with the Republican Party. . . . It is time to get rid of the Republican Party, start over with a new one that’s at least conservative.”
“You know, Bobby,” Graham shot back, “we’re running to be president of the United States, the most important job in the free world. With it comes a certain amount of honesty. I’m tired of telling people things they want to hear that I know we can’t do. I’m trying to get the Republican Party in a position to win. That’s what I’m trying to do. And it does matter to me. . . . It matters a lot.”
The candidates in the undercard debate spelled out important differences, which they alone cannot resolve. That will be up to the voters who will pick the next Republican nominee. The choice of a nominee involves judgments about character and personality - so much of which were on display in the main debate last week. But as the early forum showed, it’s about much more than that.