Last night, the Republicans held their first two debates of the 2016 election. The Niskanen Center policy analysts offer the following analysis on the candidate and the issues:

Foreign and Defense Policy Analyst Matt Fay:

Last night’s Republican presidential debate offered few questions on national defense. In the few comments on the subject, both Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson bemoaned reductions in defense spending stemming from the Budget Control Act of 2011. However, they failed to mention that the Pentagon’s base budget today is larger than it was at any time during the Cold War except for the Korean War and the height of the Reagan defense build-up. They also neglected to mention that the budget cap for 2011 is $46 billion dollars more than the Pentagon’s average annual budget during the Cold War.


Governor Chris Christie also weighed in with plans to increase U.S. Navy shipbuilding, but he offered no details on how he planned to pay for the increase. Hopefully, with more time in future debates as candidates begin to drop out of the race, some of the presidential aspirants will offer more details. However, I wouldn’t bet on that.


For more on the GOP defense debate, check out Fay’s extended analysis here and here.

Research Associate Matthew La Corte on immigration policy:

Immigration, the hot-button issue early in the 2016 campaign, was discussed thoroughly during the first two Republican debates last Thursday.


Jeb Bush reiterated his sympathy for illegal immigrants arguing they “come here illegally” because “they have no other option and they want to provide for their family.” He endorsed earned legal status and twice argued the broken immigration system should be turned into an economic driver for the country.


Donald Trump made similar comments as he has in the past about illegal immigration and crime. But at the end of his remarks he mentioned his support for a functioning legal immigration system.


John Kasich mentioned the problems of illegal immigration but not any proposed solutions. However, he does support earned legal status and a guest worker program.


Marco Rubio claimed that people “call [his] office who have been waiting for 15 years to come to the United States. And they’re wondering, maybe they should come illegally.” He recognized that the broken legal system leads to most of the undocumented immigration to the U.S.


Scott Walker delivered the empty “I believe we need to secure the border” line. This standard GOP retort on immigration fails to take into account the money and resources already spent beefing up border security. More resources will not fix the broken immigration system.


The GOP will both improve their electoral chances and the prospects for comprehensive immigration reform in 2017 as more candidates speak up in favor of immigration reform, earned legal status, guest-worker programs, and expanded legal immigration.

Civil Liberties Policy Analyst Ryan Hagemann:

Things got rather heated during the GOP debate last night when Sen. Rand Paul and Gov. Chris Christie traded rhetorical broadsides over the “need” for expansive surveillance powers to secure the United States against terrorism. And while Christie touted his experience in “respecting civil liberties and protecting the homeland,” his contention that the intelligence community requires “more tools” to get the job done right is simply incompatible with respect for due process. Paul was correct in asserting that we ought to “use the Fourth Amendment” and “get a warrant” if we wish to collect the records of individuals suspected of wrongdoing.


Unfortunately, there was less defense of American civil liberties from other candidates. Lindsey Graham vowed that if he had to take down a cyber wall, he’d take it down and would “restore the NSA that’s been gutted,” because “we’re going dark when it comes to detecting the next attack.”


Carly Fiorina, the one and only candidate with experience in the tech sector, was a bit more tactful, arguing in support of the “need to tear down cyber walls, not on a mass basis, but on a targeted basis.” She added, “But let me just say that we also need to tear down the cyber walls that China is erecting, that Russia is erecting.” And while she indicated she did “not believe that we need to wholesale destroy every American citizen’s privacy” to protect the United States from foreign threats, she did argue that “more collaboration [was] required between private-sector companies and the public sector,” specifically calling on Google and Apple to cooperate more with the government. What’s more, she tacitly supported the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA) “currently languishing, sadly, on Capitol Hill.” By expressing moderate concerns, she is likely positioning herself as a viable vice presidential nominee.


The long and short of last night’s debate was a clear lack of concern for the basic civil liberties of average Americans when juxtaposed with the need for security. Although Paul came out blasting in favor of the Bill of Rights, the rest of the Republican candidates were far too unconcerned with the near-Orwellian panopticon that has been constructed, expanded, and largely ineffective in the post-9/11 world. It is distressing to see a field of candidates so woefully dismissive of basic constitutional rights. With few exceptions, the GOP field comes across as a gaggle of geese all honking the same national-security talking points and surveillance-hawk rhetoric that have come to characterize the party of Lincoln.

Energy Policy Analyst Sarah Hunt:

A serious discussion of climate policy—or almost any discussion at all!—was notably absent during last night’s debates. Though the issue did surface briefly. When asked why conservative voters should trust a candidate with his views on climate change, Sen. Lindsey Graham responded, “You can trust me to do the following: when I get on stage with Hillary Clinton, we won’t be debating about the science, we’ll be debating about the solutions.” He continued, “In my world, we’ll focus on energy independence and a clean environment. When it comes to fossil fuels we’re going to find more here and use less.”


While a focus on “energy independence” is a very bad idea, we’re glad to hear from at least one Republican candidate who is willing to talk about solutions to climate risk management.