The first question in the GOP primetime debate was a revealing one. When asked whether the candidates would pledge to support the eventual nominee, only one of the ten candidates on stage raised his hand to signal he would not: Donald Trump.
Moderator Bret Baier tried several times to elicit a response of partisan loyalty: he reminded him he was on a “Republican primary debate stage” and suggested that “an independent run would almost certainly hand the race over to Democrats and likely another Clinton.” Yet Trump remained defiant and said he would not rule out an independent run.
Many of the questions that followed in the evening debate—or were asked in the preceding debate that aired earlier that afternoon—had a similar purpose: to impose litmus tests on the candidates and to pressure them to submit to Republican party orthodoxy. Whether on questions about immigration, the economy, ISIS, education, or the Iran deal, many questions had the same tone, feel, and cast: ‘Would you like to take the time to make another partisan attack, and would you please convince us you are the most conservative Republican on this stage?’
There were certainly lots of partisan jabs: criticism of the so-called “Obama-Clinton doctrine,” statements about the Democrats’ interest in “just politics and power” and the weakness of the Democratic field, a barrage of harsh statements about Hillary Clinton, and the accusation that the Democrats are “undermining the very character of this nation.”
But while there was plenty of red meat for the partisan base to feast on, the questions also were refreshing in revealing the true diversity of thought on the two stages. Rather than attempt an on-stage metamorphosis into a die-hard conservative Republican, many candidates stood by their differing positions.
Sen. Lindsay Graham, for instance, stood by his cooperation with Democrats to combat climate change. He pledged that instead of “debating about the science,” he looked forward to finding solutions to the problem and wants to achieve energy independence—though through policies that differ with those of most Democrats.
Graham also took a bold stance to defend Social Security. Referring to the time after his parents died while still a young adult, Graham said,
“We owned a liquor store, restaurant, bar and we lived in the back. Every penny we needed from—every penny we got from Social Security, because my sister was a minor, we needed. Today, I’m 60, I’m not married, I don’t have any kids. I would give up some Social Security to save a system that Americans are going to depend on now and in the future.”
Governors Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee spoke about ways to preserve Social Security. Christie talked about reforms that would help keep the system in place so that “no one who’s worked hard, and played by the rules, and paid into the system grows old in poverty in America.” Huckabee proposed a system that funds entitlements through taxing consumption rather than income.
There were other notable declarations of disagreement. Rand Paul, though quick to denounce the responsibility of ISIS for the atrocities taking place in Iraq and Syria, stood out as critical of the hawkish wing of the party. Nevertheless, he focused not on debating the past, but on finding ways to defeat ISIS that do not involve “fund[ing] our enemies.”
Sen. Graham, on the other hand, supports the idea—unpopular even among fellow Republicans—of sending Americans onto the battlefield not only in Iraq, but in Syria as well. Defending his call for the deployment of 20,000 troops, he said,
“If you’re running for president of the United States and you don’t understand that we need more American ground forces in Iraq and that America has to be part of a regional ground force that will go into Syria and destroy ISIL in Syria, then you’re not ready to be commander in chief.”
Former New York governor George Pataki and former Florida governor Jeb Bush also stood out as having disagreements with the party base. Pataki, a pro-choice candidate, recognized Roe v. Wade as an established ruling on abortion, but he also called for defunding Planned Parenthood and for legislation that would prohibit abortions after 20 weeks, when the fetus is viable outside the womb.
Scott Walker, governor of Wisconsin, staked out a pro-life position that is strict even by Republican standards. When asked about allowing abortions to protect the life of the mother—an exception supported by 83 percent of the public—Walker stood by his position. Huckabee, disagreeing with Pataki, argued that “the Supreme Court is not the supreme being” and called for policies to defend the lives of the unborn based on the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.
Some candidates also disagreed about gay marriage. Senator Ted Cruz and former Senator Rick Santorum criticized the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage, and Santorum referred to his success in getting the Supreme Court to reverse a ruling on partial-birth abortion as suggestive of his eagerness to defend traditional marriage. Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal also staked out a position to defend traditional marriage and called for defending the legal rights of religious groups and individuals who disagree with the Court’s decision.
Ohio governor John Kasich disagreed with many fellow candidates in accepting the same-sex marriage ruling. Like Bush, Kasich appealed to more fundamental elements of Christian teaching regarding homosexuality and marriage. He stated,
“Because somebody doesn’t think the way I do, doesn’t mean that I can’t care about them or can’t love them,” and added, “I’m going to love them no matter what they do. Because, you know what, God gives me unconditional love. I’m going to give it to my family and my friends and the people around me.”
Kasich also has relied on scripture to defend accepting federal money to expand Medicaid in Ohio—a decision over health care policy that divides many Republicans, including Jindal, who chose not to expand Medicaid in Louisiana.
Trump especially stood out regarding his position on health-care. Trump, a former member of the Independence, Reform, and Democratic parties, noted the success of single-payer health care systems around the world:
“As far as single payer, it works in Canada. It works incredibly well in Scotland. It could have worked in a different age, which is the age you’re talking about here.”
Trump then said he was in favor of “a private system without the artificial lines around every state.”
The candidates also expressed disagreements over immigration, in terms of substance as well as tone. On illegal immigration, Bush said “it’s not a felony, it’s an act of love” and defended “a path to earned legal status” that includes a fine and other steps to document immigrants.
Pundits will continue to talk about some of the more controversial or heated moments of the debate, but Republicans and the public at large have plenty of differing candidates—with resumes as eclectic as those of businesswoman Carly Fiorina, long-time public servant and ex-governor Jim Gilmore, and neurosurgeon Ben Carson—to assess before the next debate on September 16.