GOP Candidates Talk Economy in Whirlwind CNBC Debate


Kelsey Knorp
National Beat Reporter

Confrontation and chaos characterized last Wednesday’s Republican debate for candidates and moderators alike, as the ten highest-polling contenders competed for the best chance to share their positions on economic issues.

CNBC hosted the latest chapter in the unusually crowded GOP primary, featuring Ben Carson, Donald Trump, Sen. Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina, former Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Ted Cruz, former Gov. Mike Huckabee, Gov. Chris Christie, Gov. John Kasich and Sen. Rand Paul. The network also facilitated an “undercard” debate two hours earlier between Sen. Lindsey Graham, Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Gov. George Pataki and former Sen. Rick Santorum, all of whom are currently tied at around one percent in national polls.

Poll leaders Carson and Trump faced particular scrutiny for their proposed tax plans, which moderators deemed likely unviable. The moderators even went so far as to ask Trump whether his actions constituted a “comic book version” of a presidential campaign.

Trump’s tax plan would cut taxes by $10 trillion, supposedly without increasing the national deficit. Moderator John Harwood challenged the initiative with findings by the Tax Foundation think tank, which allegedly assessed an $8 trillion national debt contribution as a result of Trump’s proposed tax cuts.

“I have talked to economic advisers who have served presidents of both parties,” Harwood said. “They said you have as much of a chance of cutting taxes that much without increasing the deficit as you would of flying away from that podium by flapping your arms.”

In response, Trump invoked the support of Larry Kudlow, a CNBC television personality, but failed to provide additional details on the efficacy of his tax plan. Fellow moderator Becky Quick wasted no time in her transition to Carson and his proposed 10 percent flat tax, which he then corrected as “much closer to 15 percent.” Quick’s analysis found that even at 15 percent, Carson would need to cut government spending down by 40 percent to make such a rate sustainable.

“Remember, we have 645 federal agencies and sub-agencies,” Carson said. “Anybody who tells me that we need every penny and every one of those is living in a fantasy world.”

Meanwhile, Rubio and Cruz each had breakout moments that could potentially fuel a threat to the non-politician candidates who have so far gained the most traction within the conservative electorate. Cruz countered Carson’s tax rate with details of his own plan to instate a ten percent rate for individuals, and spare families of four from payment on their first $36,000. The flat tax for businesses would amount to 16 percent. He alleged the plan would create almost five million more jobs and raise wages by about 12 percent.

Rubio, who by the end of the night had a clear lead over his fellow debaters, proposed an increased per-child tax credit, as well as a limitation to just two tax brackets of 15 or 35 percent. The top tax rate for all small and corporate businesses would be 25 percent.

One notable moment for the Florida senator came when a moderator asked Rubio about his voting record, which has included many missed Senate votes since the start of his campaign. Bush tried to use the opportunity to attack Rubio, comparing his senatorial performance to a “French work week” and suggesting he may as well resign. In response, Rubio cited a 60 to 70 percent voting record from Secretary of State John Kerry when he ran for president in 2004 and a similar record from President Barack Obama during his 2008 campaign.

“This is another example of the double standard that exists between the mainstream media and the conservative movement,” Rubio said.

When the candidates weren’t racing to make their points within the allotted 30-to-60-second intervals, they often made jabs at debate moderators for questions they saw as unnecessarily divisive or altogether irrelevant.

“The questions that have been asked so far illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,” Cruz said during the first hour. “This is not a cage match.”

CNBC moderators did tend to single out candidates in several cases, including a question about Trump’s presidential qualifications fielded solely to Huckabee, another on daily fantasy football “gambling” strictly to Bush and one more directed at Christie on the viability of climate change. The network has since faced criticism for its handling of the debate.

The latest Republican contest comes just over two weeks after the Oct. 13 CNN Democratic debate between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Gov. Martin O’Malley, former Gov. Lincoln Chafee, and former Sen. Jim Webb. The latter two candidates have since dropped out of the race. Most press following the debate found Clinton the winner, though Sanders stuck by his non-conflict strategy and even responded to a question about Clinton’s email scandal with the noteworthy statement: “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.”

In closing Wednesday night, Rubio invoked his parents’ immigration from Cuba as a success story that could make voters more friendly to his campaign than to Trump’s cutthroat stance on immigration.

“This isn’t just the nation I was born in,” Rubio said. “This is the nation that literally changed the history of my family. We call that the American Dream, although it’s built on the universal dream of a better life.”