Bogus Claims and Broken Arguments: The First 2016 GOP Presidential Debate

by Benjamin Studebaker

The pundits are out in force today arguing about which republican candidate performed best in yesterday’s debate. But the pundit definition of “best” is, well, not the best. They evaluate politics descriptively, disputing who will get the most support, not who should. There’s precious little serious reflection on the quality of the arguments presented. Candidates know this, and consequently every election they behave more theatrically, trying to score cheap points with burns and put-downs instead of engaging in nuanced policy discussion. So instead of discussing whose personal anecdote was the most touching or whose one-liner had the most zing, I invite you to join me in a dissection of the substantive claims and arguments we did see.

A lot of different things were said in the debate, and I won’t be able to cover everything. So what I have decided to do is to highlight one crucial argument or factual claim made by each of the 10 candidates in the primetime debate. I will leave out anything I have already covered in the candidate evaluations series, so there will be no retread–if you want to read more about a candidate, click their bold name to read their entry in that series.

Donald Trump

The quote:

Border Patrol, I was at the border last week. Border Patrol, people that I deal with, that I talk to, they say this is what’s happening. Because our leaders are stupid. Our politicians are stupid.

And the Mexican government is much smarter, much sharper, much more cunning. And they send the bad ones over because they don’t want to pay for them. They don’t want to take care of them.

Why should they when the stupid leaders of the United States will do it for them? And that’s what is happening whether you like it or not.

Trump was not pressed to expound much on his policy positions–most of the questions he was asked dealt with his controversial statements or his more left-leaning positions from the 1990’s. He did however get an opportunity to make this very bold claim about the border. It’s wrong on two levels:

  1. Mexico does not send anyone over. talked to an array of immigration policy experts, all of whom agreed that while Mexico does not try very hard to stop people from crossing the border, it does not incentivize, facilitate, or require anyone to illegally immigrate to the United States.
  2. The people who do immigrate to the United States illegally are not “the bad ones”. Immigrants are far less likely to commit crimes than native-born citizens, and most of the crimes immigrants commit are non-violent violations of immigration laws:

The CBO has also calculated that immigration reforms that would create a path to citizenship for extant undocumented immigrants and allow for additional people to come to the United States would contribute more in tax revenues than they would consume in government services, reducing the size of the budget deficit:

Jeb Bush

The quote:

Barack Obama became president, and he abandoned Iraq. He left, and when he left Al Qaida was done for. ISIS was created because of the void that we left, and that void now exists as a caliphate the size of Indiana.

There are a couple things wrong with this:

  1. The US-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement that fixed the withdrawal date on December 31, 2011 was signed not by Barack Obama, but by President George W. Bush in December of 2008. Obama considered attempting to negotiate a new agreement that would have kept a residual force after 2011, but this faced immense opposition in the Iraqi parliament.
  2. If the US had been able to negotiate a new arrangement, there is little reason to think that this would have prevented the rise of ISIS. ISIS originated in Syria as a result of the Syrian Civil War, and would have originated in Syria even if the US had maintained a full occupation of Iraq. The US might have been able to prevent ISIS from moving into Iraq, but this would have required that the US maintain a significant ground presence in Iraq not just past 2011 but to this day and beyond. If and when the US did finally choose to leave Iraq, the unsolved political conflict between the Sunnis and the Shiites would undoubtedly flare up again in some form or other, with disaffected Sunnis and Shiites joining radical groups similar to ISIS. Ultimately, extremist groups like ISIS will continue to form in the Middle East until these countries arrive at political and economic solutions that protect weaker sectarian groups from exploitation by stronger groups. Between 2003 and 2011, the US was completely unable to solve these sectarian problems, and there is little reason to think that the US could have done so by prolonging the military presence indefinitely.

Scott Walker

The quote:

Iran is not a place we should be doing business with.

To me, 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.

This is not just bad with Iran, this is bad with ISIS. It is tied together, and, once and for all, we need a leader who’s gonna stand up and do something about it.

I’ve made the argument that the Iran deal is a good move and don’t need to repeat that here, but I would like to point out two glaring issues with Walker’s quote that expose just what a neophyte he is on foreign policy:

  1. The other members of the P5+1 group (Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany) are not going to agree to reinstate sanctions, much less impose far more crippling sanctions. It was very difficult to get these countries to agree to any sanctions at all in the first place–Russia and China are generally on friendly terms with Iran and Britain, France, and Germany want to need Iranian oil to help their economies recover and withstand the Eurocrisis. Conservative British Prime Minister David Cameron is calling US senators in support of this deal. France and Germany are helping the Obama administration sell the deal as well. Walker’s promise is completely unrealistic and fantastical.
  2. Iran and ISIS are tied together, but not in the way that Walker suggests. Walker implies that Iran and ISIS are allies, when the reality is that they are deadly enemies. ISIS is a Sunni extremist group seeking to overthrow the Shiite governments in Syria and Iraq, both of which are very friendly with the Iranian government, which is also run by Shiites. These are basic facts about the Middle East that any serious presidential candidate ought to know.

Mike Huckabee

The quote:

A lot of people are talking about defunding planned parenthood, as if that’s a huge game changer. I think it’s time to do something even more bold. I think the next president ought to invoke the Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the constitution now that we clearly know that that baby inside the mother’s womb is a person at the moment of conception.

The reason we know that it is is because of the DNA schedule that we now have clear scientific evidence on. And, this notion that we just continue to ignore the personhood of the individual is a violation of that unborn child’s Fifth and 14th Amendment rights for due process and equal protection under the law.

It’s time that we recognize the Supreme Court is not the supreme being, and we change the policy to be pro-life and protect children instead of rip up their body parts and sell them like they’re parts to a Buick.

I recently discussed some of the moral philosophy surrounding the abortion debate and won’t repeat myself here. What I will do is point out that what Huckabee is saying does not make sense from a constitutional standpoint. Article III of the constitution describes the role of the judicial branch. When there’s a question about how the 5th and 14th amendments should be understood, that’s a question of constitutional interpretation which is precisely what the Supreme Court exists to rule on. When the court rules that a fetus is not a person and so is not protected by those amendments, it acts in accordance with its constitutional role. For moral philosophers (and for many Supreme Court justices), “personhood” is not a scientific question that can be answered with DNA evidence. There are many people who believe that braindead patients are not moral persons even though genetically they are undeniably human and many people who believe that some animals deserve moral personhood even though they are genetically definitively not human. The argument about what constitutes a person is an irreducibly normative argument about what kinds of beings have moral value. If Huckabee disagrees with the court’s decision, he is entitled to attempt to pass a constitutional amendment forcing the court to recognize his definition of personhood, but as long as the term remains ambiguous it will remain open to philosophical debate and liberal interpretations by liberal-minded justices. Huckabee’s plan is unconstitutional under Article III and would create a constitutional crisis if implemented.

Ben Carson

The quote:

What I agree with is that we need a significantly changed taxation system. And the one that I’ve advocated is based on tithing, because I think God is a pretty fair guy.

And he said, you know, if you give me a tithe, it doesn’t matter how much you make. If you’ve had a bumper crop, you don’t owe me triple tithes. And if you’ve had no crops at all, you don’t owe me no tithes. So there must be something inherently fair about that.

And that’s why I’ve advocated a proportional tax system. You make $10 billion, you pay a billion. You make $10, you pay one. And everybody gets treated the same way. And you get rid of the deductions, you get rid of all the loopholes…

This is a simplistic, ridiculous plan. For one, it’s not revenue neutral. The federal government currently collects around 18% of GDP in tax revenue:

CBO Revenue Projection

A 10% flat rate on income would not even collect 10% of GDP, because GDP also includes consumption. So to put it very simply, this plan cannot work. We need not even get into the moral arguments against shifting the tax burden from the wealthy to the poor. Here are the total effective tax rates:

So Carson wants to hike rates for the lowest quintile, lower rates slightly for the middle three quintiles, and drop the rate like an anchor for the top quintile. Since his plan also fails to raise enough revenue, the implication is that he’d have massively reduce spending, and since he’s committed to increasing defense spending this means he would have to eliminate crucial government services for the poor and the elderly. Under Carson, the poor would pay more and receive less. The poor are the least materially equipped to take on a larger financial burden, so if Carson were able to do this he would impose enormous suffering on millions of Americans.

Ted Cruz

The quote:

Megyn, we need a commander in chief that speaks the truth. We will not defeat radical Islamic terrorism so long as we have a president unwilling to utter the words, “radical Islamic terrorism”.

When I asked General Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs, what would be required militarily to destroy ISIS, he said there is no military solution. We need to change the conditions on the ground so that young men are not in poverty and susceptible to radicalization. That, with all due respect, is nonsense.

It’s the same answer the State Department gave that we need to give them jobs. What we need is a commander in chief that makes — clear, if you join ISIS, if you wage jihad on America, then you are signing your death warrant.

This is a bizarre set of lines from Cruz. For one, republicans frequently criticize democrats for failing to listen to the generals, and yet here is Cruz, refusing to listen to one of the generals. For two, it is unclear how saying “radical Islamic terrorism” would contribute in any way to the defeat of these extremist groups and ideologies. As many on the stage were fond of saying, we need constructive action, not words. It should also be pointed out that by calling these groups “Islamic”, we lend credence to their claim to have interpreted Islam in a legitimate way. This also helps them recruit members by enabling them to convincingly frame their conflict with the US as a war on Islam, on their way of life.

But most importantly, Dempsey and the state department are right–the US has been trying for almost 15 years to show people that joining extremist organizations is signing a death warrant. The US has killed untold thousands of militants, and yet more people continue to form and join militant groups anyway because they believe in a doctrine of martyrdom. These people have so little to live for in their everyday lives that they are immensely susceptible to the promises of extremist clerics, who tell them that to die fighting America is a noble act rewarded by god. Killing them just gives them what they want–it is entirely useless as a deterrent. It would be far more sensible to inoculate young Muslims against the persuasive power of these clerics by helping the countries of the region create economic and life opportunities for young people that are more attractive than martyrdom.

Marco Rubio

The quote:

20 — over 40 percent of small and mid-size banks that loan money to small businesses have been wiped out over the — since Dodd-Frank has passed. We need to repeal and replace Dodd-Frank. We need to make America fair again for all businesses, but especially those being run by small business owners.

Rubio has his facts wrong here. The number of commercial banks has only declined by 16% since the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act was signed into law. There is also no evidence that Dodd-Frank is the principle cause of any of this–the number of commercial banks has been decreasing for decades as large banks continue to swallow up smaller banks:

We could keep more small banks independent if the government began aggressively blocking bank mergers, but this would involve passing more regulations, not repealing those already extant. So why does Rubio really want to repeal Dodd-Frank? It might have something to do with the fact that a number of big time banks have donated to his campaign. His #2 donor is the hedge fund Elliott Management and his #4 donor is Goldman Sachs. These big financial institutions want Dodd-Frank taken down because it makes it more difficult for them to engage in the reckless, destabilizing lending and speculation that contributed so heavily to the economic crisis of 2008.

Rand Paul

The quote:

Well, let’s be clear, I’m the only one on the stage who actually has a five-year budget that balances.

It is true that Paul’s plan is more practical than Carson’s, but not by all that much. Paul wants to replace income, payroll, and estate taxes with a 14.5% flat tax. He then wants to replace the corporate income tax with what amounts to a European-style value added tax, or VAT. Unlike Carson, Paul offers a significant exemption that makes his plan a little softer on the poor ($15,000 per filer plus $5,000 per dependent). But the 14.5% rate still makes the tax system much less progressive and does not provide anywhere near enough funds to be revenue neutral, costing between $1 and $3 trillion over the next decade. How is Paul going to pay for all of that? Remarkably, Paul has detailed the spending cuts he would make, and they’re brutal:

  • Privatize Social Security, raise the retirement age, reduce the size of the benefit
  • Privatize Medicare
  • 20% cut for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
  • 20% cut for the National Institutes of Health (NIH)
  • 20% cut for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
  • 25% cut for NASA
  • 20% cut for the US Geological Survey
  • 30% cut for the National Park System
  • 20% cut for Indian Health Services
  • 62% cut for the National Science Foundation
  • 71% cut for the State Department
  • 78% cut for the Department of the Interior
  • 85% cut for the General Services Administration
  • 49% cut for the Department of Transportation
  • 49% cut for the Department of Agriculture
  • 26% cut for the Department of Health and Human Services
  • 28% cut for the Justice Department
  • 29% cut for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
  • Eliminating the bureaus of Reclamation and Indian Affairs
  • Eliminate the Government Printing Office
  • Eliminate the Department of Energy
  • Eliminate the Department of Housing and Urban Development
  • Eliminate the Department of Education
  • Eliminate all Foreign Aid
  • He initially called for a 30% cut to the Defense Budget, but flip-flopped on that.

The extent to which these cuts would utterly devastate the country cannot be understated. Rand Paul would essentially stop investing in the future of the country. Millions of poor people and elderly people would see their benefits reduced or eliminated. It’s absolute madness.

Chris Christie

The quote (edited for length and clarity):

CHRISTIE: I will make no apologies, ever, for protecting the lives and the safety of the American people. We have to give more tools to our folks to be able to do that, not fewer, and then trust those people and oversee them to do it the right way. As president, that is exactly what I’ll do.

PAUL: I want to collect more records from terrorists, but less records from innocent Americans. The Fourth Amendment was what we fought the Revolution over! John Adams said it was the spark that led to our war for independence, and I’m proud of standing for the Bill of Rights, and I will continue to stand for the Bill of Rights.

CHRISTIE: That’s a completely ridiculous answer. “I want to collect more records from terrorists, but less records from other people.” How are you supposed to know?

PAUL: Use the Fourth Amendment!

CHRISTIE: What are you supposed to…

PAUL: Use the Fourth Amendment!

CHRISTIE: …how are you supposed to — no, I’ll tell you how you, look…

PAUL: Get a warrant!

CHRISTIE: Let me tell you something, you go…

PAUL: Get a judge to sign the warrant!

CHRISTIE: Listen, senator, you know, when you’re sitting in a subcommittee, just blowing hot air about this, you can say things like that. When you’re responsible for protecting the lives of the American people, then what you need to do is to make sure is to make sure that you use the system the way it’s supposed to work.

PAUL: Here’s the problem, governor. Here’s the problem, governor. You fundamentally misunderstand the Bill of Rights. Every time you did a case, you got a warrant from a judge. I’m talking about searches without warrants–indiscriminately, of all Americans’ records, and that’s what I fought to end. I don’t trust President Obama with our records. I know you gave him a big hug, and if you want to give him a big hug again, go right ahead.

CHRISTIE: And you know — you know, Senator Paul? Senator Paul, you know, the hugs that I remember are the hugs that I gave to the families who lost their people on September 11th. Those are the hugs I remember, and those had nothing to do — and those had nothing to do with politics, unlike what you’re doing by cutting speeches on the floor of the Senate, then putting them on the Internet within half an hour to raise money for your campaign while still putting our country at risk.

Christie made a sloppy argument here, and Paul failed to capitalize. Christie believes that the state must collect records from everyday people without warrants because he believes that this is necessary to protect the American people. Paul believes this is unnecessary, but he never explains why, shouting “the fourth amendment” over and over again like some kind of enraged parrot. Instead, Paul should have given reasons why it is more important to protect fourth amendment rights than it is to do everything possible to prevent terrorist attacks. Paul might have said that collecting and examining all of this metadata is a really expensive and inefficient use of government resources and that there are many ways to use those resources that would save more lives:

If terrorists were killing millions of Americans every year, it might make sense to devote significant resources to stopping terrorism, even at the expense of some civil liberties. But the risk of dying in a terrorist attack is extraordinarily small:

Christie might respond by claiming that the risk is so low because of the resources that have been given to law enforcement, and that if those resources were taken away, the fatality rate would rise dramatically. But even before 9/11, the incidence of terrorist attacks in the US was declining and the country was becoming steadily safer:

It’s true that the resources and legal wiggle room that have been given to law enforcement professionals restrict civil liberty, but many Americans believe this is a worthwhile trade-off because they drastically overestimate the threat of terrorism. Paul could have educated voters on this issue. Why didn’t he? Perhaps he isn’t aware, or perhaps he believes that voters are irrationally paranoid of terrorism and will not listen to reason. In any case, the result is the same–Christie got away with perpetuating tragic myths that cause us to inefficiently and tragically waste precious state resources.

John Kasich

The quote:

…our Medicaid is growing at one of the lowest rates in the country. And, finally, we went from $8 billion in the hole to $2 billion in the black. We’ve cut $5 billion in taxes and we’ve grown 350,000 jobs.

Kasich took a couple opportunities to present himself as more compassionate than his rivals, talking up his decision to take the federal funding to expand Medicaid and his willingness to accept homosexuals. He spent most of the debate focusing on his record as governor, which I detailed extensively in his candidate evaluation. So I have a couple remarks.

First, Medicaid spending is growing slightly faster than the national average in Ohio, not “at one of the lowest rates in the country”. Of the 30 states that chose to expand Medicaid, Ohio ranks 16th in growth, in the middle of this pack (not including the 20 states that chose not to expand their Medicaid programs at all). But I think Kasich’s willingness to expand Medicaid is admirable, though I’m sure many republican primary voters disagree.

I’ll also remind readers that Kasich’s job claims are overstated–Ohio has underperformed the national average on both jobs and wages:


Every candidate made important false claims or made weak arguments that could easily have been challenged. From a policy standpoint, there are no winners here. Perhaps that’s why Bernie Sanders had the most retweeted quip of the night: