The GOP’s Inconvenient Truths

If you listened closely Thursday night, several Republican candidates let some heresies slip out.

Walker Trump
The truth: Donald Trump, right, confers with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker during a break in the Republican presidential primary debate on Aug. 6, 2015, at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.

Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

In the Republican Party, you’re expected to adhere to certain orthodoxies. You can’t admit that public assistance is good for people or that the Iraq war was a mistake. You’re supposed to pretend that single-payer health care is socialism, that we could balance the budget by cutting pork, and that with a little more backbone, we could make Iran utterly capitulate. But with 17 candidates running for the party’s presidential nomination, somebody, now and then, is bound to blurt out the truth. That’s what happened in Thursday night’s debates. Here are some of the heresies that slipped out.

1. The Iraq war was a mistake. Jeb Bush has waffled on this, but on Thursday he decisively bit the bullet. He said he had equivocated because “it was difficult for me” after talking to families of dead soldiers who believed that their loved ones “did not die in vain.” But Bush concluded: “Knowing what we know now, with faulty intelligence, and not having security be the first priority when we invaded, it was a mistake. I wouldn’t have gone in.”

2. We created ISIS. Fox News’ Bret Baier challenged Sen. Rand Paul for having “blamed the rise of ISIS on Republican hawks.” Baier quoted Paul’s criticism of the hawks: “Everything they’ve talked about in foreign policy, they’ve been wrong for the last 20 years.” In the debate, Paul stipulated that ISIS was solely responsible for its atrocities. But he also blasted “Republicans who wanted to send arms to the allies of ISIS. ISIS rides around in a billion dollars’ worth of U.S. Humvees. … We shouldn’t fund our enemies.”

3. We couldn’t sustain international sanctions on Iran. Nearly all the Republicans have maintained the proud fiction that if Congress were to reject the nuclear agreement with Iran, or if the next president were to renounce it, we could stiffen the world’s resolve and get a better deal. As Gov. Scott Walker put it in the prime-time debate: “You terminate the deal on Day One, you reinstate the sanctions authorized by Congress, you go to Congress and put in place even more crippling sanctions in place, and then you convince our allies to do the same.” But in the undercard debate, Carly Fiorina confessed the truth: “I hope Congress says no to this deal. But realistically, even if they do, the money is flowing. China and Russia have never been on our side of the table. The Europeans have moved on.” That’s the unpleasant reality: We got as good a deal as we could, given the difficulties of our coalition.

4. You can’t cut the deficit without cutting entitlements. Republicans love to pretend they can balance the budget by cutting waste, fraud, and abuse. Paul’s favorite target, for instance, is origami condoms. But on Thursday night, Gov. Chris Christie rebuked his colleagues with some basic math. “Seventy-one percent of federal spending right now is on entitlement and debt service,” said Christie. “We have spent the last hour and five minutes talking about the other 29 percent and no time on the 71 percent, and that makes no sense. Now, let me tell you exactly what we would do on Social Security.” When Mike Huckabee replied that Congress should cut its own retirement program instead, Christie retorted, “We can’t fix the problem just by ending Congress’ retirement.” Gesturing to show how meager the savings would be, Christie scoffed, “That’s worth about this much.”

5. People need Social Security. Economic stratification and wage stagnation have made several Republicans surprisingly vocal about defending checks from the government. “Half of American seniors would be in poverty without a Social Security check,” Sen. Lindsey Graham observed in Thursday’s undercard debate. In the prime-time debate, Huckabee chimed in: “Sixty million Americans are on Social Security—60 million. A third of those people depend on 90 percent of their income from Social Security.” Huckabee complained that politicians in both parties try to balance the books “off the backs of people, many of whom are poor, and depend on that money.”

6. Payroll taxes are unfair. Huckabee complained, “One of the reasons that Social Security is in so much trouble is that the only funding stream comes from people who get a wage. … Most of the income in this country is made by people at the top who get dividends and capital gains.” To shore up the program, Huckabee proposed a consumption tax that “is paid by everybody.” He claimed it would hit “illegals, prostitutes, pimps, [and] drug dealers.” But it would also hit people who get their income from capital gains and spend it on yachts.

7. Welfare is an economic opportunity problem, not a cultural problem. Twenty years ago it was popular to depict welfare recipients as lazy or pathological. The recession has changed that. When the debate moderators asked whether “Americans have become too reliant on assistance or too willing to take assistance,” Rick Santorum—who used to talk more about his role in welfare reform—focused instead on fixing the economy: “If we want to create jobs for the folks that you’re talking about, who are having trouble getting off government benefits, primarily because of their low skill level, there is no better way … [than] putting people back to work in manufacturing.” George Pataki agreed: “Do we have to have a cultural change? The answer is no. … Good people who wanted to be a part of the American dream have become trapped in dependency. … We put in place mandatory workfare, but we allowed people to keep health care. We put in place child care support.”

8. Illegal immigrants are good people. Donald Trump may call them rapists, but Bush is standing by his declaration that their migration is “not a felony, it’s an act of love. It’s an act of commitment to your family.” On Thursday, Bush reiterated, “The great majority of people coming here illegally have no other option. They want to provide for their family.” Instead of “talking about this as a wedge issue,” Bush called for “a path to earned legal status.”

9. Medicaid helps people regain their productivity. Fox’s Megyn Kelly pressed Gov. John Kasich about his choice to expand Medicaid in Ohio, as well as his statement that God cares more about helping the poor than about cutting government. Kasich replied, “President Reagan expanded Medicaid three or four times.” He continued:

I had an opportunity to bring resources back to Ohio. To do what? To treat the mentally ill. Ten thousand of them sit in our prisons. It costs $22,500 a year to keep them in prison. I’d rather get them their medication so they could lead a decent life. Secondly, we are rehabbing the drug-addicted. Eighty percent of the people in our prisons have addictions or problems. We now treat them in the prisons, release them in the community, and the recidivism rate is 10 percent, and everybody across this country knows that the tsunami of drugs is threatening their very families. So we’re treating them and getting them on their feet. And, finally, the working poor, instead of them having come into the emergency rooms where it costs more, where they’re sicker and we end up paying, we brought a program in here to make sure that people could get on their feet.

That’s the kind of logic—helping people help themselves—that Bill Clinton used to preach. Now we’re hearing it from one of the Republicans who voted to impeach him.

10. Single-payer health care would be more efficient. Baier reminded Trump: “Fifteen years ago, you called yourself a liberal on health care. You were for a single-payer system, a Canadian-style system.” Trump insisted he’s now for “a private system.” But he couldn’t resist pointing out: “As far as single-payer, it works in Canada. It works incredibly well in Scotland.” For good measure, Trump excoriated the current health insurance market: “The insurance companies are making a fortune because they have control of the politicians.” It sounds as though Trump the businessman thinks single-payer would be smarter, even if Trump the Republican candidate has to parrot the party line.

11. Human activity is causing climate change. Fox’s Bill Hemmer asked Graham how Republicans could trust him, since Graham has “worked with Democrats and President Obama when it came to climate change.” Graham, who accepts the scientific consensus on climate change, embraced it as a selling point. “When I get onstage with Hillary Clinton, we won’t be debating about the science, we’ll be debating about the solutions,” he said. “In my world, we’ll focus on energy independence and a clean environment.”

If you’re rooting for sanity in the GOP, the good news from Thursday night is that somewhere in this field of candidates, you’re going to find it. The bad news is that you’ll only hear it in bits and pieces, sometimes from this candidate and sometimes from that one. Orthodoxies exist for a reason. The Republican Party, as presently constituted, isn’t willing to nominate someone who’s open to reality and reform on most of these issues. And until it is, it will be the party that declaims and denounces, not the party that governs.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the GOP primary.