John Patty (University of Chicago)
As the GOP debates continue, I see two themes as important, one of which is "horse-race-based," and the other of which is "issue-based." On the horse race front, the collective dynamic within the field is increasingly about winnowing everybody but Donald Trump. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are squaring off, aided possibly by the narrative that Cruz is playing nice with Trump in order to capture Trump's supporters if Trump drops out.
Jeb Bush seems relevant, again, if only because he seems like the good-taste "anti-Trump" horse right now. Ben Carson, like Carly Fiorina, now seems out of place, not because of anything about his candidacy other than the fact that Trump is seen to have "out-Trumped" his outsider candidacy. Because of this, none of the candidates really need to talk about Carson. In a nutshell, the feel right now is it is a race to see whether Trump or Bush will face off against Cruz or Rubio in the "real race."
On the issues, notable to me is that the rhetoric, due in part to the horrible events in Paris and San Bernardino, is about which candidate is better at supporting a bigger and stronger federal government. Religious watch lists. Shutting down the internet. Warrantless wiretaps. One can only imagine how awkward Rand Paul must feel there — not just because he knows his father, Ron, is watching. Maybe he can make some spring break plans with Carson, Chris Christie, Fiorina, and John Kasich, though five is an awkward number.
Julia Azari (Marquette University)
Ideology can be especially tough to nail down in foreign policy, where events often drive the public narrative and many important details are arcane or deliberately obscured from view. The current Republican Party, however, is at its core a party of messages and ideological commitments. Three ideological themes stand out from Tuesday's debate: the importance of experience, the unresolved contradictions between nationalism and the Bush doctrine, and the lack of structure in the party's ideological conflict.
The candidates frequently drew on personal experience to justify policy positions. Fiorina talked about her experiences as a business leader, Rubio mentioned growing up in an immigrant community, Christie spoke about 9/11. Both Rubio and Christie noted that these issues are "not theoretical" for them. Obviously, one of the things that candidates do in debates is try to point out what's unique about them and seek to connect with voters. But using experience that way is, at its core, a rejection of other ways of building an ideology. It also builds directly on a trope that Bush's critics sometimes pointed out — that his approach relied on conviction, feeling, and direct revelation of truth rather than evidence. It's hard to know how well this played with the target audience — it's easy for these kinds of claims to be mocked and caricatured. But it also made Ted Cruz stand out for his syllogisms and references to purple unicorns: for better or worse, he has a fundamentally different political style from most of the others. I wonder if he's still mad about Rubio's comments about philosophers from the November debate.
The most interesting ideological twist of the evening was the collective attempt to square with George W. Bush's doctrine and invasion of Iraq. Clearly, here Donald Trump has the most leeway. As, shall we say, a newcomer to the party, he has more freedom to just reject that approach, and that's what he did, arguing that we should have saved our "$4 trillion or $5 trillion. I wish it were spent right here in the United States, on our schools, hospitals, roads, airports, and everything else that are all falling apart." For the rest of the candidates this was a more delicate dance, and many took the nationalist route (if not the isolationist approach). Candidates admitted the world was sometimes more stable under brutal dictators.
One lesson here is about the evolution of ideology as time and events unfold. To return to the objections of Bush administration critics 10 years ago, the ideas that informed the war on terror and the invasion of Iraq frequently came under fire for being too nationalist — cowboy tough talk about permissions slips and departure from European allies.
But the democracy promotion component of that agenda, and the linkage between regime change and international security, now look, as Cruz perhaps inadvertently suggested, downright Wilsonian compared with what we heard last night. At the same time, these candidates had to balance their nationalism with promises to "destroy ISIS" and to be tough and committed where, in their telling, the Obama administration has been weak. In a way, these positions are both extensions of Bush foreign policy. But in their contemporary application, they are contradictory.
Finally, I've noted throughout the election season that the intraparty conflict seems unstructured. With the exception of libertarian Rand Paul, each candidate represents a specific way of combining different facets of conservatism, rather than a distinct facet or interpretation. Tuesday's debate featured some hints toward a structure of conflict in the exchanges between candidates. Between Christie and Paul, we saw contention over the classic liberty versus security question (see Seth Masket's comments below). Between Trump and Bush, we got a heated exchange over, well, whether Trump is unhinged. As entertaining and uncomfortable as that part of the evening was, it also highlighted — perhaps cartoonishly — the split between establishment and insurgent, and how that split has defied expectations in this nomination season so far.
But it's the exchanges between Rubio and Cruz that perhaps tell us the most about the ideological fates of late-regime parties. Their disagreements tended to come down not to fundamental principles but to policy details. These details are almost certainly important, but as Christie pointed out, they don't make for very exciting television. As we enter the final stages (probably) of the Reagan era, candidates like Cruz and Rubio aren't contending over whose interpretation of conservatism is correct. Rather, it's about who can bring competent management of the relevant government programs — surveillance in this case.
But this isn't how the contemporary Republican Party works, and thus enter candidates like Trump who, unburdened by the weight of older party debates or by technocratic imperatives, can re-articulate ideas, loudly, in blunt and vivid language.
Jonathan Ladd (Georgetown University)
The influential 2008 book, The Party Decides, argued that party insiders, including elected officials, activists, and interest groups, have more influence than any other force over who wins each party's nomination. Other factors, like early polling leads, early fundraising success, momentum, clever campaign tactics, or coming across well on television, are far less important. Since the book came out, nothing has happened to contradict the idea that party insider support is important, but we have learned one new thing. The 2008, 2012, and 2016 cycles have shown that party insiders have a harder time coordinating on one preferred insider candidate than it previously appeared. Yet it is still pretty clear that party insiders work as a negative screen, blocking candidates they truly dislike from winning the nomination.
Think, for instance, of the Republicans in 2012. Romney didn't secure enough organized party support to make his path to the nomination easy. But when the main remaining viable alternative was Newt Gingrich, a person despised by Washington Republicans (and almost all Republicans who served in the House with him in the 1990s), insiders worked to block Gingrich.
This year is another example of how insider power is better at blocking undesirable candidates than at coordinating on an alternative. This year, the candidate who is clearly unacceptable to Republican insiders is Donald Trump. He is personally and ideologically unpredictable. And on some of the issues where he has been consistent (like support for Social Security and Medicare benefits), he is out of step with many conservative activists. I remain fairly certain that Trump will not be the Republican nominee. It's one thing to lead in early polls; it is quite another to win in state-by-state caucuses and primaries, where local political organizations will be very helpful. Hostility from party insiders will doom Trump when he tries to actually win delegates.
But the striking thing about this cycle, on display again in last night's debate, is the inability of party insiders to coordinate on a single alternative. There still is not one alternative to Trump who has amassed a dominant proportion of insider support. This has allowed the party factions that do support Trump, such as conservative talk radio, to give him plurality leads in most national polls. Early on, it looked like Scott Walker could be the consensus choice. But he attracted few endorsements, had little success in the polls, and dropped out. Jeb Bush raised a lot of early money. But his surprising fecklessness in televised debates (which continued last night) appears to have chilled his ongoing fundraising and prevented interest group and politician endorsements from settling on him.
To many, Marco Rubio seems like an obvious consensus candidate. He is as conservative as party activists on every major issue except immigration. He is an articulate young spokesman for the party, who, being Hispanic, might cut into Democrats' advantage in that demographic. He is a reliable conservative and may be the strongest candidate for challenging Hillary Clinton. But it appears the immigration issue will be too much for party insiders and Republican voters to overlook.
During the debate, Rubio was strongly criticized by Cruz for supporting a Senate immigration bill that included a path to citizenship. After the 2012 presidential election loss, many Republican politicians and pundits urged the party as a whole to moderate on immigration to avoid alienating the growing Hispanic population. If support for this notion derails Rubio's candidacy this year, it will strikingly demonstrate how central ethnic and racial resentment has become in the modern conservative movement and Republican Party.
The other possible Trump alternative is Ted Cruz. Cruz is despised by congressional Republicans, but because of his legislative tactics (which they view as reckless and counterproductive), not his views. Some conservative interest groups are already starting to coordinate around Cruz. Last night, Cruz came across as an articulate speaker. He avoided a major fight with Trump (whose supporters he would like to eventually inherit) and highlighted for the audience Rubio's insufficient conservatism on immigration. Altogether, the candidate who increased his probability of the nomination the most last night was probably Cruz.
I still think a Bush or Rubio nomination is possible, much more likely than a Trump nomination. But increasingly Cruz looks like he has a realistic chance. The fact that Cruz, a politician that Washington Republicans could accept but personally detest, may win is a testament to the inability of party insiders to coordinate early around one candidate.
Seth Masket (University of Denver)
As far as I could tell, the theme of this debate was "things Americans are afraid of." A broader foreign policy discussion incorporating questions on, say, the Paris climate change agreement might have been useful, but instead the evening focused on ISIS, immigrants, refugees, and immigrant refugees who might be members of ISIS.
But that actually served a valuable purpose, evoking some interesting distinctions among the candidates. Rand Paul, who shows no real signs of catching on as a credible presidential candidate, nonetheless played the role of libertarian gadfly, warning candidates about the consequences of their policy statements on surveillance and military deployment. He was the one thing that kept the other candidates from descending into a verbal contest of "No, I'LL be tougher and meaner to terrorists!" When Chris Christie cavalierly suggested he'd decree a no-fly zone where Russian planes are already flying and shoot down any jets that violated it, Paul rightly noted that Christie's plan would risk a large-scale war between nuclear powers.
Another valuable addition to the debate was Wolf Blitzer's question, initially to Ted Cruz, about whether the world would be safer with dictators like Hussein, Qaddafi, and Mubarak still in power. Too often, debate questions are hopelessly open-ended ("How would you keep America safe?") or uselessly belligerent ("Is this a comic book version of a presidential campaign?"). But here, Blitzer was asking candidates to make a hard choice between freedom and stability. There's no obviously right answer, and both paths are fraught with dangers. But those are exactly the sorts of decisions presidents end up having to make, so to hear their thought processes on such matters is actually quite useful.
Finally, if I may be allowed to preach for a moment, I have a small bone to pick with the candidates' obsession with safety. Jeb Bush concluded his remarks with a plea for American to be "safe and sound." Chris Christie, answering a question about refugees, said, "The first job of the president of the United States is to protect your safety and your security and the security and safety of your family." Marco Rubio echoed, "The first and most important priority of the president of the United States is to protect the safety and security of Americans." Democratic candidates and presidents use this sort of language, as well.
But it just isn't so. The Founding Fathers provided an explicit oath for presidents to take, and it says nothing about safety. Instead, it declares that the first priority of the president is to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution. That's a very important distinction. If your number one priority is safety, you might push for a number of things that go against the Constitution. We might all be a lot safer with soldiers patrolling our neighborhoods and surveillance cameras in every home, but safety is not the only goal our nation and our presidents are supposed to pursue.
Now, of course we want presidents who care about our safety, and we want someone to be accountable if that safety is compromised. But that's a political goal. And that's a good thing! There's nothing wrong with candidates stating their political goals and evaluating them based on those goals. But let's not lose sight of the responsibilities of the office they seek.