For all the controversy surrounding the Koch brothers, they sure know how to put on a good presidential debate.
Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio spent about a hour and 15 minutes on Sunday in a back-and-forth conversation moderated by ABC News’ Jon Karl in front of a room of well-heeled conservative donors at the Kochs’ annual winter summit in Palm Springs. The event wasn’t labeled as a debate; after all, the three senators who participated in it are still playing coy about their respective White House bids. Instead, it was billed as the Freedom Partners Forum, named after the Koch-funded organization that is a linchpin of their political network.
The forum didn’t feature any fireworks and all three participants dodged their fair share of questions but the discussion was actually informative—even if Rand Paul did state his opposition to presidential candidates being asked questions with “yes or no answers.”
The most surprising part of the forum was its focus on income inequality at a gathering hosted by two of the richest men on the planet. In particular, Cruz hammered home this criticism of the maldistribution of wealth in the United States. He argued that the Obama administration’s policies had favored “the millionaires and billionaires who the president likes to demagogue... The people who have been hammered for the past six years are working men and women.” He also offered a somewhat muted criticism of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in saying that he wanted the GOP to be “the party of the 47 percent.”
Rubio struck a similar but less explicitly populist note in noting the massive structural changes in the economy in recent decades and pointed out that many of the expenses that middle-class Americans are struggling with, like Internet and cellphone bills, didn’t exist a generation ago. He gave a simple call instead for economic growth instead and argued “income inequality is a symptom of a bigger problem: opportunity inequality.”
In contrast, Paul stuck less on economic issues. He derided proposals for revenue-neutral tax reform as simply Washington politicians “shuffling the deck” and gave a convoluted answer about whether the government had any role in fixing economic inequality, noting that the Constitution only mentions “the general welfare.”
The biggest contrasts of the forum came on foreign policy, where Paul’s positions greatly diverged from those held by Rubio and Cruz on Cuba and Iran. The iconoclastic Kentucky senator actually agreed with Obama on reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba and trying to pursue continued negotiations with Iran on that nation’s nuclear program.
Rubio warned of the risks of a nuclear Iran and Cruz called that country’s leaders “radical religious Islamic nut cases,” Paul urged a cautious approach toward a new sanctions bill while negotiations continued. He warned that if diplomacy failed, the United States would be left to choose either a nuclear Iran or military conflict. Paul also disagreed with his two fellow Republicans over Obama’s efforts to end longstanding American sanctions against Cuba. Rubio was particularly pointed in his criticism of the administration’s efforts, arguing that attempts to overwhelm “a regime with free enterprise” have not produced democracy in countries like China or Vietnam and simply left China “the richest tyranny in the history of the world.”
Despite agreeing with the White House on these two foreign-policy issues, Paul went out of his way to distance himself from Obama. “I don’t trust the president. I don’t believe him or support him on anything he does,” he said.
For all the debate, the trio of senators did duck a number of questions, including one that asked whether the minimum wage was good policy as well as a repeat of the famous question from the 2012 Republican primary when Fox News’ Bret Baier asked candidates about whether they’d accept a budget deal that featured $10 in spending cuts for every $1 in tax increases. In 2012, every Republican asked the question said they wouldn’t accept such a deal, while in 2012, the three likely contenders asked all did their darnedest to avoid answering the question at all.
Yet, despite the dodging, the forum was often substantive as Karl gave all three participants relative freedom to speak, argue and—as senators are prone to doing at times—filibuster. With a dozen Republican primary debates already scheduled for the next year and as many as 20 potential candidates participating, this could be a high point of the primary. But that’s to be expected. Those debates will be for the hoi polloi and not just for a select few in a luxury hotel in Palm Springs.