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The third Republican presidential debate, explained

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The third Republican debate featured a return to the feisty spirit of the first, but this time the most ferocious fights weren't between the candidates, but between the candidates and the moderators.

The main losers in that dynamic were once-upon-a-time frontrunners Jeb Bush and Donald Trump who, for different reasons, were unable to feast at the table of anti-moderator zingers.

It also led to a rather formless debate in which the candidates scarcely addressed the actual topic at hand: which one of them ought to be the GOP nominee and what policy direction the party should take.

Where inchoate grassroots conservative rage once found its voice in the form of Trump, in the third debate it simply seemed inchoate — reduced to the argument that America's main business news network is part of a vast liberal conspiracy and that asking for mathematically plausible tax policies is a form of bias.

The broadcast started way too late

The stage was set for a fussy evening when the debate opened with an inexplicable 15-minute delay, during which a team of CNBC anchors rambled incoherently (one host remarked that today's college students must not be as liberal as their reputation because "they need to buy their electronic devices"). Filling unexpected dead air is challenging for any broadcast team, but it was a reminder that unlike a typical debate network, CNBC isn't really in the politics business and its team doesn't necessarily have an instinctive grasp of the rhythms of political television.

The GOP attacks on the media that were to come were largely opportunistic and self-serving, but the pre-broadcast blundering was an early sign of network-side weaknesses that helped make it work.

Republicans got tough early questions on taxes

After a goofy opening question asking each candidate to name his or her greatest weakness (they dodged, of course), John Harwood asked Donald Trump if his campaign was a "comic book version" of a presidency. Ben Carson was asked how his 10 percent flat tax could possibly work, and John Kasich was baited into repeating criticisms of other candidates' unrealistic tax plans.

For a while, the contenders struggled with this material, but Ted Cruz found the way out by neither defending his own grossly irresponsible tax plan nor attacking any of his rivals. Instead, he lit into the moderators, accusing them of ignoring substantive issues in favor of cheap gotchas.

This was great politics, but completely wrong on the merits. The question of whether the various tax plans on the table are even remotely adequate to the US government's funding needs is extremely substantive. The candidates were struggling with the material because they don't have good answers to the cold reality of budget math. Cruz turned the tables precisely by avoiding substance. And it set the tone for the rest of the evening.

Jeb Bush appeared to vanish

One candidate who didn't get in on the media-bashing game was Bush, who instead elected to go after Marco Rubio for skipping too many votes. The whole reason Rubio's rise has been so deadly for Bush is that they don't really have any disagreements on issues, so Bush was left to work with a character attack.

The ensuing exchange, however, merely proved that the student has become the master in the Bush-Rubio relationship, and the younger man is simply a better politician.

Bush should have dropped out of the race already, when he could have sold stepping aside in Rubio's favor as a big-minded move taken for the greater good of the Republican Party. Instead, he is letting himself get humiliated by Rubio, whose observation that Bush's criticism was only happening because "someone has convinced me that attacking me is going to help you" stung so badly because it's clearly true.

The GOP threw a media-bashing party

Once Cruz earned rapturous applause for scolding CNBC, many other candidates followed his lead in simply ducking questions with counterattacks.

Rather than answer a legitimate, if slightly frivolous question, about whether daily fantasy football should be regulated as a form of illegal internet gambling, Chris Christie yelled about how inappropriate it was to be asking about fantasy football while ISIS is on the rampage. Rubio managed to take offense at an innocent question about Super PACs, earning cheers with the line that "Democrats have their own Super PAC — it's called the mainstream media."

Rubio got away with a slippery answer on taxes

The hostile tone between the candidates and the media wound up playing to Rubio's advantage during a later exchange with Harwood on taxes. Harwood challenged the gap between Rubio's rhetoric of upward mobility and the reality that his enormously expensive tax plan would deliver much larger sums of money to high-income families than to low-income ones.

Rubio simply (and falsely) denied that this was the case. When Harwood pushed back, Rubio conceded that "numerically" speaking, Harwood was correct, but nonetheless his plan should be seen as primarily a win for the middle class in percentage terms. This is an important nuance, because similar issues arise with many Republican tax plans — Jeb Bush, for example, also described his massive tax cut for the rich as primarily benefiting the middle class.

The basic way Republicans like to see it is that if you give a $5,000 tax cut to a person earning $50,000 a year and a $250,000 tax cut to a person earning $50 million a year, you have a middle-class plan. After all, the $50,000 family is getting a 10 percent income boost, while the $50 million family is getting a mere 5 percent boost. The idea is that you should ignore the fact that "numerically," $250,000 is more money than $5,000.

Given the prevailing mood in the room, with the audience now primed to react hostility to tough moderator follow-ups, Rubio was able to essentially skate away without properly addressing Harwood's point.

Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee introduced some weird new ideas

Most of the candidates limited their policy remarks to reiterating earlier positions on taxes and Social Security, but Cruz was asked to expound on the Federal Reserve and turned out to have a lot to say on this subject. He wants to "audit the Fed" but also "end this star chamber that's been engaged in this incredible experiment of quantitative easing" and shift the United States to a policy of "sound money ... ideally tied to gold." He described this as in response to an urgent need to fight inflation, even though current economic data offers no evidence of inflation.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, in a rather different direction, repeatedly argued that it was pointless to talk about federal retirement spending outside of the context of curing all disease. His plan to fix Medicare is to "focus on the diseases that are costing us the trillions of dollars — diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer's."

It's not clear that Huckabee actually has a plan to cure these diseases, nor whether he's considered the budgetary impact on Social Security of immortality, but he at least strikes an appealing optimistic vision. Except then during his closing statement, Huckabee worried that if Hillary Clinton is elected president he may have to walk his grandchildren through "the charred remains of a great country."

Immigration didn't really play

Over the summer, the issue of immigration turned the Republican primary upside down. Bush's stumble down from frontrunner status began because his support for comprehensive immigration reform puts him at odds with his party's base. And Trump rode table-pounding opposition to illegal immigration to the top of the polls.

But in the CNBC debate, the issue was basically nonexistent.

Trump got one question in which he denied ever having said something he clearly did say, but the big policy questions around what to do with the millions of undocumented people living in the United States went unasked. This is part of a larger trend in which the campaign is becoming less Trump-centric, but it also served to play directly into Rubio's hands. He's benefited mightily from Bush's stumbles, to emerge as the Other Establishment Candidate, except he has the exact same issue vulnerability. Indeed, Rubio's vulnerability on this topic is in some ways more severe since he literally co-authored the Obama administration's big failed immigration legislation.

Attacking him on this point would seem to be the obvious way forward for Cruz, Trump, Kasich, Christie, Huckabee, or anyone else who would like to beat him. But with everyone so focused on slamming the moderators, nobody was bothering to slam the rising star whom more and more DC insiders are seeing as the most likely nominee.

The third Republican debate, in 2 minutes

The GOP debate was two hours long. Here it is in 2 minutes.

Posted by Vox on Wednesday, October 28, 2015