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The fourth Republican presidential debate, explained

Scott Olson/Getty Images

The Fox Business Network Republican debate lacked a signature moment, a single key winner, or really anything that should dramatically alter the trajectory of the race. That meant, de facto, good news for Marco Rubio, who was on the rise before the debate happened. Not so much because he was so impressive, but because across a kaleidoscopic series of exchanges in which we saw the most actual debating of any debate thus far, Rubio time and again was the guy defending the banal Republican Party view of the issues.

Other candidates — from John Kasich to Donald Trump to Jeb Bush — all had their good moments, but they often arrived while saying something ideologically heterodox, impressing some observers in the press but not necessarily appealing to the people who determine a Republican Party primary.

1) The candidates debated, and the moderators stayed quiet

The main theme of the fourth debate was actual debate — arguments between the candidates, mostly broadly tied to policy issues. They made it happen, in part, by focusing on softball questions rather than "tough" ones, giving candidates the opportunity to hold forth and be tough on each other.

The results were both entertaining and informative, shedding light on which topics — immigration, foreign policy, bank bailouts, etc. — feature meaningful disagreement and in which areas (most notably the need for big tax cuts and much less environmental and bank regulation) they basically all agree.

The downside was that at times not just one candidate but several of them would veer into a realm of total factual inaccuracy, and the moderators didn't wield a strong hand to bring things back to earth.

2) Rubio ducked immigration

This debate saw a raucous, multi-sided exchange on immigration policy, featuring Trump's usual antics, Bush making the case for comprehensive immigration reform, Kasich scoffing at the idea of mass deportation as a solution ("it's a silly argument"), and Ted Cruz standing strong for the conservative orthodoxy: "If Republicans join Democrats as the party of amnesty, we will lose."

Missing from the fray was Rubio who, once again, managed to avoid discussing his biggest area of vulnerability. Bush's immigration answer was fairly strong — passionate, detailed, well-informed, and persuasive to people with a non-ideological mindset. It was the best he'd looked in months. But that is Bush's problem in a nutshell — he looks strongest and most confident when discussing issues on which he's out of step with his party's base. Rubio is much better than Bush in talking about most things, but we still haven't seen him seriously pressed on the question of his key role in drafting the comprehensive immigration reform bill that House conservatives ultimately killed.

3) Rand Paul found his voice

"How is it conservative to add a trillion dollars in military expenditures," Rand Paul demanded of Marco Rubio in the midst of a testy, revealing exchange between the two Senate Republicans. While candidates from Rubio to Bush to Carly Fiorina spoke of the need to increase defense spending and rebuild the American military, Paul noted that we already spend more than the next 10 countries combined.

In terms of who is more likely to become the GOP nominee, Rubio seemed to clearly win the exchange. The fact of the matter is that Paul's view that the philosophy of small government should extend to the tanks and bombs side of the government isn't what most Republicans think. But it was nonetheless an important debate for Paul, who had seemingly vanished and lost his identity over the course of the 2016 campaign thus far. Tonight, he looked like the person who used to land on magazine covers — someone who can start with his father's libertarian base and then built it out by being younger and less cranky than the elder Paul. He isn't going to be the nominee, but he is positioning himself to be a factional leader of some importance.

4) The tax debate keeps getting zanier

Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Donald Trump have thus far all released tax plans that are detailed enough to be assessed in terms of their impact on Americans of different income levels. The plans all differ slightly from one another, but they all have the same basic shape — huge gains for the top 1 percent that dwarf what anyone else will get.

But the debate revealed that these are actually the responsible, sober-minded plans in the field. Ben Carson continues to insist that the government could be funded with a 15 percent flat tax — a number that would yield a laughably inadequate level of revenue. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul are all pitching plans centered on the introduction of a value-added tax, a move that would likely raise taxes for lower-income Americans (especially retirees) in order to finance staggeringly large tax cuts for the wealthy. Carly Fiorina, meanwhile, keeps insisting that she can deliver a three-page tax code but can't quite seem to say what will be on the pages.

5) Nobody onstage understood bank regulation

This was the first Republican debate to feature meaningful dialogue about bank bailouts and "too big to fail," which was nice because it's something Republicans disagree about and because the debate revealed a number of the candidates to be strikingly ignorant on the subject.

Most egregiously, Cruz and Kasich had an extended discussion about whether to bail out Bank of America that proceeded as if neither man was aware that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation would protect shareholders' bank accounts whether or not the larger bank went bust. This would have been a good opportunity for someone else to show he or she knew what they were talking about, but nobody did.

Separately, Jeb Bush offered the intriguing notion that the best form of bank regulation would be stricter rules governing how much money banks are allowed to borrow. At the same time, he criticized the Obama administration's approach for doing the opposite of this, even though President Obama has been changing regulation of this issue in exactly the direction Bush favors. Hillary Clinton, like Bush, has proposed going even further than Obama. A well-informed Bush opponent could have pointed out some of this, but none was available.

6) Philosophers took a beating

An odd theme of the night was a strange level of philosophy bashing. Rubio kicked things off by saying that we ought to encourage more vocational education because welders get paid more than philosophers. This isn't true, whether you consider everyone who majors in philosophy or only those who actually teach philosophy.

Later Cruz denounced the Federal Reserve as a bunch of philosopher-kings (they are actually economists) who need to be replaced by a rule-based system that would let the value of the dollar fluctuate arbitrarily according to the productivity of gold mines.

Then from the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, Kasich argued that as governor of a swing state he learned that "philosophy does not work when you run something," thus inspiring his relatively moderate approach.

Marco Rubio, blessed once again with good fortune, managed to simply not participate in this embarrassing exchange.

7) Ted Cruz is setting up the GOP for a fiasco

He is far from the top of the polls, but many observers are starting to think that Cruz could have a real chance at the nomination if Trump and Ben Carson begin to fade out in favor of more experienced politicians. If he does emerge, Republicans are going to find themselves saddled with a nominee peddling a plainly unelectable policy platform.

  • During the debate, Cruz casually tossed off the idea that he'd like to privatize Social Security, an idea that proved so toxic when George W. Bush tried it that even his politically incompetent younger brother knows better than to bring it back.
  • For the already retired, Cruz's hideously regressive and totally unaffordable tax plan also features a shiny new 16 percent value-added tax (essentially a form of sales tax) that seniors who paid taxes their whole working lives will now need to pay.
  • He stood up for mass deportation.
  • He says he wants to return the country to the gold standard.

Cruz sees this as a winning agenda because "I believe that 2016 will be an election like 1980," he said, "that we will win by following Reagan's admonition to paint in bold colors, not pale pastels."

But elections don't happen in a vacuum. Ronald Reagan's 1980 victory came after a brutal primary challenge to Jimmy Carter from Ted Kennedy left the Democrats deeply divided, and arrived in the context of a country facing severe economic distress. It is certainly possible for the out party to win the White House in the context of America's current good-but-not-great economic growth numbers, but you're not going to do it by throwing down with a bunch of wildly unpopular policy proposals.