Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate consisted largely of three candidates arguing over which of them is a liar and a con artist — but in between all the accusations and put-downs, a fourth candidate calmly backpedaled on a statement of opposition to faith-based anti-LGBT discrimination.
In the Fox News debate in Detroit, in a break from business mogul Donald Trump exchanging insults alternately with U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, Bret Baier asked Ohio Gov. John Kasich about a comment he made in last week’s debate, when asked if business owners should have the right to refuse service to those who offend their religious beliefs.
In the debate a week ago, Kasich was asked about “license to discriminate” laws and said, “If you’re in the business of selling things, if you're not going to sell to somebody you don't agree with, OK, today I’m not going to sell to somebody who’s gay, and tomorrow maybe I won’t sell to somebody who’s divorced.” Baier showed a clip of that, then said, “Governor, some faith leaders got nervous about that answer. Do gay-marriage dissenters have rights?”
Kasich replied that if customers “ask you to participate in something you really don’t like, that’s a whole ’nother issue.” He encouraged customers to be “tolerant” if they’re turned away, saying, “If you go to a photographer to take pictures at your wedding, and he says, I’d rather not do it, find another photographer, don’t sue them in court.”
“If somebody is being pressured to participate in something that is against their deeply held religious beliefs, then we're going to have to think about dealing with the law,” he added. But he said he hopes “common sense” will prevail and there won’t be a need for religious objections laws.
Other talk of LGBT rights included Kasich voicing his belief that marriage is an opposite-sex union and Texas Sen. Cruz again denouncing the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision. The moderators did not, by the way, ask Cruz about the praise he received from Caitlyn Jenner in an Advocate interview published earlier in the day.
When Baier asked Cruz if same-sex couples should be allowed to adopt children — which they generally are — Cruz responded, “I would leave the question of marriage to the states. I would leave the question of adoption to the states. That’s the way it has been for two centuries of our nation’s history until five unelected judges in an illegitimate and wrong decision decided to seize the authority over marriage and wrongfully tear down the marriage laws of all 50 states.”
Cruz then took the opportunity to lambaste Trump for saying he’d be willing to “compromise and negotiate” on Supreme Court nominees. Some issues call for compromise, Cruz said, but “I will never compromise away your religious liberty.”
Also on the topic of the Supreme Court, Trump decried Cruz’s support of President George W. Bush’s appointment of John Roberts as chief justice in 2005. In cases involving President Obama’s health care reform law, Roberts “did the wrong thing,” Trump said, as “when it came his time to raise his hand and kill Obamacare, not once, but twice, he let us down.” Cruz was Roberts’s “primary supporter,” Trump said.
“Donald has a tenuous relationship with the truth,” Cruz responded. In 2005, when Cruz was Texas’s solicitor general, he did write an op-ed urging Roberts’s confirmation by the U.S. Senate.
Cruz and Florida Sen. Rubio also took turns questioning Trump’s conservative credentials, with Cruz saying he’d supported Democratic presidents and candidates in the past — including contributions to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential run — and Rubio denouncing him for praising Planned Parenthood earlier this week. And both said he should release audio of an off-the-record interview he gave the New York Times editorial board in January, rumored to show he may not be as tough as he sounds on illegal immigration. Trump said he would not release any audio and that he was “not very flexible” on his pledge to deport all undocumented immigrants from the U.S.
The Times interview was first brought up by Megyn Kelly, who moderated the debate along with Baier and Chris Wallace. This was her first meeting with Trump since the two clashed in the first Republican debate last summer, and Trump followed up by making statements about her that were widely seen as misogynistic. But the exchanges between Kelly and Trump were largely civil Thursday night, even when she queried him about contradictory statements he’d made on many issues — he responded that he’d misspoken on some, changed his mind on others.
Rubio, though, called out Trump for hiring foreign workers to staff one of his properties in Florida and for having his clothing line manufactured overseas, and characterized him as a “con artist” for his operation of Trump University, a business training course that’s the subject of a class action lawsuit from former students who say it delivered less than it promised. “He’s trying to con people into giving them their vote just like he conned these people into giving him their money,” Rubio said.
Trump came back by calling Rubio “the real con artist” because he has missed votes in the Senate. “Now the people of Florida can’t stand him,” Trump said. “He couldn’t get elected dogcatcher.”
That was the general tone of the debate, even though Cruz had said early on, “I don’t think the people of America are interested in a bunch of bickering school children.” The candidates did make their usual promises to revitalize the economy (by cutting taxes and regulations), oppose gun control, and strengthen the U.S. military. Trump made pledges to largely dismantle the Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency, and Cruz reiterated that he would abolish the Internal Revenue Service — and that a very small staff at the Treasury Department could handle tax filings.
But there were a lot of accusations of lying, along with some comic relief, with Cruz repeatedly telling Trump to calm down and breathe, leading Rubio to say at one point, “When they’re done with the yoga, can I answer a question?”
Trump frequently called Rubio “little Marco” and responded to a comment Rubio made earlier this week, going where some believed even Trump wouldn’t go — or Rubio. “He referred to my hands — if they are small, something else must be small,” Trump said. “I guarantee you there is no problem. I guarantee.”
Kasich, for the most part, stayed out of the arguments, mainly asserting that as a governor and former congressman, he is the most experienced candidate, and he touted himself as a budget-balancer and job creator.
Each candidate, of course, promoted himself as the best one to go up against the Democratic candidate, and Trump denounced 2012’s Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, for saying the party should find an alternative to Trump. But despite all the fireworks, the debate ended with all four candidates onstage pledging to support the eventual nominee — even if it’s Trump.
For more, see The Washington Post’s annotated transcript here, and below, watch its video summary of the debate.