Immigration (David Bier & Matthew La Corte)

There were few surprises in the immigration segment of Wednesday night’s Republican debate. Donald Trump peddled his draconian plan to deport all undocumented immigrants (for Niskanen Center analysis on Trump’s immigration plan see here and here). Jeb Bush, mirroring a theme from an excellent ad that played during the debate from the Immigration Action Fund, contrasted Trump’s antipathy for immigrants with Ronald Reagan’s legacy on the issue.

Marco Rubio poignantly remarked that his grandfather—a Cuban exile—might have read his news in Spanish but still became a conservative. Ben Carson called for a guest worker program for undocumented immigrants once the border is secure.

There was naturally more rhetoric than policy detail, but one thing is certain: the Republican Party is progressing on immigration reform despite Trump as evidenced by the fact that a majority of the 2016 candidates support earned legal status for the undocumented and increases to legal immigration. This is a major improvement from the 2012 race.

Climate (Sarah Hunt)

The climate change discussion Wednesday night is a baby step forward in the gradually improving Republican dialogue about climate. Senator Rubio and Governor Christie had an exchange about what makes sense as a climate change solution, rather then quibbling about the reality of climate change.

Both candidates expressed a concern that the left is trying to use climate change to expand the regulatory state and erode free markets, especially President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. But Republican candidates will eventually need to offer more than criticism of EPA overreach as a response to climate change questions. Polling continues to show that climate change is a growing political and policy problem, with some polls showing a majority of registered Republicans polled support the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions. As Governor Christie ably pointed out, we can address climate change without “massive government intervention.” In order to stay relevant to the electorate, the Republican party would do well to offer more specifics of what an economically sound market-based climate risk management policy might look like in the next Republican administration.

Defense (Matthew Fay)

Wednesday night’s Republican primary debate paid more attention to defense policy than the previous debate, but substance remained lacking. Florida Senator Marco Rubio claimed that the U.S. military has been “eviscerated” in recent years. Really? In 2014, the United States spent over $300 billion more on its military than Russia and China combined. Even at the spending level established in the Budget Control Act of 2011, the United States would spend $45 billion more in 2016 than it did on a yearly basis during the Cold War after adjusting for inflation. Dr. Ben Carson lamented the “small” size of the U.S. Navy, but failed to mention that the United States maintains more aircraft carriers than the rest of the world combined. Former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina offered the most substantive answer relating to defense of the night. She offered an ambitious plan to enlarge both the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps, while simultaneously increasing the number of Navy ships and upgrading all three legs of the nuclear triad. Of course, she offered no indication of how she would pay for her plans. Given rising personnel costs and competing nuclear and conventional modernization programs, there is no way to simultaneously increase manpower, undertake an ambitious shipbuilding program, and upgrade nuclear delivery systems. Choices have to be made. When it comes to defense, Republican candidates refuse to make them.

Civil Liberties (Ryan Hagemann)

Last night’s Republican debate showcased the candidates’ stances on everything from foreign policy to immigration. Absent from the dialogue was any discussion about civil liberties and technology. With major security breaches at OPM and elsewhere making headlines over the past few months, it is surprising that there was no mention of the candidates’ perspectives on how they would approach cybersecurity. Additionally, perspectives on law enforcement’s recent concerns that encryption would cause problems for investigations was also a no-show last night; nor was there any conversation touching on the ongoing privacy and surveillance debate currently underway in Washington.

This is unfortunate. The next administration will undoubtedly face real challenges in the privacy and security of cyberspace. Rand Paul, in particular, missed an opportunity to reorient the conversation toward the question of NSA surveillance—an issue that has distinguished him from the cavalcade of would-be GOP nominees.

Let’s hope the next debate will touch on these concerns and clarify the positions of the candidates on online security, surveillance, and privacy.