The Republican debate in Detroit Thursday night covered a wide range of topics, including immigration, journalistic ethics, military foreign policy, and the size of Donald Trump’s penis, to name a few.
But underlying all of the schoolyard insults and policy disagreements was a more deeply rooted tension between the four candidates onstage: whether it is more important in government to be flexible or principled.
Trump was the cheerleader of compromise and evolution, admitting at multiple points during the evening to a change of position on different issues. “I’m changing. I’m changing,” he said about skilled worker visas. “I’m softening the position because we have to have talented people in this country.” He also said he had shifted his views on assault weapons bans and admitting Syrian refugees to the country.
“I have a very strong core,” Trump said. “But I’ve never seen a successful person who wasn’t flexible, who didn’t have a certain degree of flexibility. … If you’re going to be one way and you think it’s wrong, does that mean the rest of your life you have to go in the wrong direction because you don’t want to change?”
Trump also explicitly criticized Texas Sen. Ted Cruz for not being flexible enough. “I will say, though, in terms of immigration—and almost anything else—there always has to be some, you know, tug and pull and deal. And, you know, when I watch Ted stand on the Senate floor, I had great respect for what he did,” Trump said, referencing Cruz’s 2013 filibuster on defunding the Affordable Care Act. “He stood there for a day-and-a-half or something. In the meantime, what came of it? Nothing. You have to be able to have some flexibility, some negotiation.”
With that, Trump drew the battle lines, betting that frustrated voters would respond to his pitch of pragmatic dealmaking. A contrast stark contrast to Cruz, who has relied on voters to instead support his political promise to never compromise.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich came down on Trump’s side of the argument, saying that he would be a candidate who could reach across the aisle.
“I know how to bring people together, Republicans and Democrats,” he said. “I have successfully, both at the federal level and the state level brought economic growth, wage growth, and economic security to this country. And I want to go back and do it again, and I’m going to keep talking about my message of bringing people together.”
This pitted the outsider and the Governor against the two Senators, and Cruz eagerly took his place opposite the brash businessman.
“At the last debate, one of my colleagues on this stage said on the question of religious liberty and Supreme Court nominees that he’d be willing to compromise and negotiate,” Cruz said, referencing Trump. “I can tell you, for me, there are areas that we should compromise on. Marginal tax rates, we can reach a middle ground on. But when it comes to core principles and convictions, when it comes to the Constitution and Bill of Rights, I can tell the men and women at home I will never compromise away your religious liberty.”
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio sided with Cruz.”There’s a difference between flexibility and telling people whatever you think you need to say to get them to do what you want them to do,” he said to Trump.
In the end, the final words on the subject were delivered in the form of an insult comedy soundbite that fit the taunting nature of the debate. “When they’re done with the yoga, can I answer the question?” Rubio interjected during a fight between Trump and Cruz. Cruz said he hoped there wouldn’t be any yoga happening, to which Rubio replied, “Well, he’s very flexible, so you never know.”