Flash And Fibs Were GOP Debate's Big Winners

The candidates kept dodging questions on policy -- or just made stuff up.

Lots of people seem to think the dominant storylines about Wednesday night’s Republican primary debate are Marco Rubio’s smooth delivery, Jeb Bush’s weak attempt to knock Rubio off his game, and the supposed incompetence of the CNBC moderators.

If you care about substance, however, the main takeaway was how little candor the candidates showed when talking about policy.

Over and over again, the GOP contenders on stage in Boulder, Colorado, made misleading claims about important economic issues. And when the moderators confronted the candidates with their contradictions or misstatements, the candidates responded by attacking the media -- and fibbing a little more.

It was good politics, for sure. As HuffPost's Natalie Jackson has noted, beating up on reporters is extremely popular with the Republican base. Probably the loudest cheers for the entire night came after Ted Cruz attacked the moderators for setting up a "cage match" and ignoring substance. Frank Luntz, a conservative pollster, tweeted that his focus group gave that statement a 98 rating (out of 100).

But Cruz’s statement, and the reaction to it, actually showed just how evasive the Republicans were being. The question that prompted Cruz’s outburst was a perfectly legitimate one. It was about the spending agreement between the White House and Congress, and what Cruz thought about it. Questions don’t get more substantive than that.

Here were some examples of the candidates dissembling and, in one case, telling an outright lie.

Donald Trump develops amnesia: The most brazen statement of the night came from Trump. During a discussion about immigration and visas for high-skill workers, CNBC’s Becky Quick asked Trump about a references he’d made to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg -- specifically, calling Rubio "Zuckerberg’s personal senator."

"I never said that," Trump replied.

Ben Carson pretends he can change the laws of math: At another moment, Quick homed in on one key problem with Carson’s proposal for a flat tax. Given the rate Carson has in mind, Quick noted, he’d be significantly reducing federal revenue -- in ways that would require either huge spending cuts or, more likely, much higher deficits.

Quick used specific figures from reputable sources, and Carson simply denied them. "When … when we put all the facts down, you’ll be able to see that it’s not true, it works out very well," he said.

Carly Fiorina recycles a debunked talking point: In a discussion of Hillary Clinton and the significance of electing the first female president, Fiorina said Clinton was merely proposing to defend and expand the policies of the Obama administration -- and that during Obama’s term, 92 percent of the jobs lost in America belonged to women.

The argument may have sounded familiar: Mitt Romney used in 2012, at which point the fact-checking site Politifact pointed out several key flaws. The figure includes job losses during Obama's first month in office -- long before any of his economic policies started to take effect. At the same time, it does not include all of the jobs that men had lost when the recession first began, during the end of George W. Bush’s term.

The figure is even more misleading now, since it ignores all of the job growth since 2012.

Rubio dodges a big question on his tax plan: This was in some ways the most important evasion of the night, because it’s an example of how deftly Rubio will defend and disguise his deeply conservative economic scheme should he become the nominee.

CNBC’s John Harwood asked Rubio about his tax plan. Citing a recent analysis by the nonpartisan (but conservative-leaning) Tax Foundation, Harwood said Rubio’s tax plan would give larger benefits to the rich than to the middle class. Rubio quickly responded that Harwood had his facts wrong -- that the Rubio tax plan would actually give larger benefits to the poor.

The sleight of hand is easy to miss. (One of the few to catch it was New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait.) Rubio is correct when he says that, by the Tax Foundation’s reckoning, his plan would deliver proportionally higher after-tax benefits to the very poor than it would to the rich. But Harwood hadn’t asked about the poor. He’d asked about the middle class. Sure enough, the Tax Foundation found that the top 10 percent of earners in America would get proportionally larger benefits than all but the bottom one-third of the income scale, and that the top 1 percent -- the wealthiest of the wealthy -- would get more than everybody except the bottom tenth.

And that’s to say nothing of the fact that his plan is so expensive even many conservatives think it’s wildly unrealistic. If Rubio wins and a Republican-controlled Congress passes something that looks anything like his plan, the only way to offset the expense would be through deep spending cuts into programs upon which the poor and middle class rely.

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None of this may matter. The early verdict is that Rubio won, because he showed "poise, seriousness, and passion." Pundits are describing the CNBC moderator performance as an "epic fail." And maybe that points to an inherent problem with trying to ask substantive questions in televised debates: Candidates willing to bend or even deny the truth can get away with it, as long as they do so shamelessly and the audience roars with approval.

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