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The Iowa GOP primary debate wasn’t only missing Donald Trump—mercifully. It was also missing a discussion of the fundamental principles of government and the country’s—and Republican Party’s—real underlying moral crisis.

The Donald’s absence from the stage of the January 28 matchup eliminated some of the distraction of his personal attacks on the other candidates, clearing space gop seventh debate cruz rand paulfor more serious discussion. Sadly, the event was much like the ones that went before, part recitation of talking points and stump speech lines, part food fight.

Jeb Bush for choice, Rand Paul vs. tyranny

There were occasional bright spots. Jeb Bush was asked an odd question about a private veteran’s charity accused of wasting money and whether he, as president, would police such charities. Bush rightly highlighted the recent Veterans Administration scandals. He not only said he’d fire those responsible for the incompetence that had led to the deaths of veterans waiting for treatment. He also said he would “give veterans a choice card so that they don't have to travel hours and hours to get care if they want to go to their private provider.” Choice, what an idea!

Missing: a discussion of principles defining what government should and should not do.

Rand Paul was asked about whether body cameras for police, especially in places like Ferguson where racial tensions are high, would protect both police and citizens. Paul not surprisingly agreed. But he added that “a third of the budget for the city of Ferguson was being reaped by civil fines. People were just being fined to death. . . . If you're living on the edge of poverty and you get a $100 fine or your car towed, a lot of times you lose your job.” Paul should be congratulated for highlighting the fact that tyranny can be found at all levels, and in many seemingly mundane government practices.

Cruz vs. Rubio: immigration war 3 gop civil war ayn rand objectivism tea party atlas shrugged copy

The fiercest Republican-on-Republican verbal violence came between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio over immigration. With film clips of their past contradictory statements, the Fox News moderators provoked the fight. But it was instructive to hear the verbal gymnastics as the two GOP Latinos attempted to explain the intricacies of their evolving views on the issue, while they each claimed not to have evolved at all.

Their mano-a-mano also helped explain, for better or worse, part of Trump’s appeal. There are nuances to the immigration issue. If you’re for a more open immigration policy—read Jeb Bush—you still understand the need to deal with millions of illegals who are already here. Both Cruz and Rubio made such tries in the past, but now fight with each other, trying to distance themselves from what should be viewed as past virtues in order to appear as hardcore border hawks. To some viewing this sorry spectacle, hearing Trump unapologetically—and foolishly—declare “deport ‘em all” might seem refreshingly clear.

Chris Christie captured the sentiment of those trying to follow the intricacies of legislative maneuvering when he said, “I watched the video of Senator Cruz. I watched the video of Senator Rubio. I heard what they said. . . . I feel like I need a Washington-to-English dictionary.”

Republicans without principles

Moderator Chris Wallace introduced a segment of the debate promising questions on “the role of the federal government.” That should have been the most important discussion of the evening. It wasn’t. The questions concerned specific policies.

None of the candidates provided a moral defense of limited government. 

What was missing was a discussion of the fundamental principles defining what government should and should not do. Some of the candidates, Rand Paul most notably, do offer a strong limited-government perspective when discussing particular issues. But with so many small and irrelevant issues discussed, the integrating principles got lost. None of the candidates managed to really communicate to the listener a compelling, unified vision of limited government.

More important, none defended limited government on the moral principle that individuals have rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Thus, none held that the role of government should be limited to protect rights. Such declarations, loud, clear, and often, would have seized the moral high ground and left the other candidates defending the use of government guns to regulate, restrict, and impoverish—rather than to protect—citizens. The Republicans praised the Reagan legacy, but they failed to rise to the rhetoric or principles of the Gipper.

GOP civil war

And the major reason for this failure is that the GOP is in a civil war, with major factions accepting these principles in a confused and contradictory manner, if at all. Establishment Republicans—Bush and Kasich—want to preserve the current system, just rein it in a bit. Extreme social conservatives—best represented by undercard debate candidates Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee—give priority to having government interfere with our personal lives, for example, banning same-sex unions. Finally, libertarian-leaning and constitutional Republicans—Paul—actually want to roll back the intrusive state, but face an uphill battle. To be fair, Cruz said of the GOP, “You've got to be able to bring together conservatives and evangelicals and libertarians, and stitch together a winning majority.” But unity eludes the party because principles are in conflict.

It was sad to see Ben Carson, for his closing remarks, recite the preamble of the Constitution, sounding more like a junior high school student than a serious presidential candidate. Would that the limited government principles of the Constitution and its moral foundation in individual rights had been part of every answer from every tongue of every GOP candidate. That would be a winning strategy for the candidates and the country!

Explore: 

The Republican Party’s Civil War: Will Freedom Win?  a #1 Amazon best-seller

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Edward Hudgins

About The Author:

Edward Hudgins is the director of advocacy for The Atlas Society and the editor and author of several books on politics and government policy.

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