August 7, 2015 10:32AM

Cato Scholars React to Last Night’s Republican Presidential Primary Debates

By Cato Editors

Last night many Cato scholars watched and live-tweeted the Republican presidential primary debates. Missed the conversation? Read our scholars' statements below. 

"Unfortunately, neither the Fox questioners nor the candidates spent much time discussing how to limit government or expand freedom. There was too much focus on keeping immigrants out of America. Bush and Walker seemed calm and stable, and in the long run that may be what voters want. Christie and Paul both made their points strongly, including one epic confrontation, appealing to different parts of the electorate. Somebody should just set up the two of them to debate. The candidates kept talking about the 'weak' U.S. military. The United States spends more on the military than China, Russia, Great Britain, France, Japan, India, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Brazil, and the next 4 countries combined." 

David Boaz, Executive Vice President of the Cato Institute 

"This was another disappointing night for those seeking a smaller, less costly, less intrusive government. Depending on the candidate, we heard calls for more spending, more domestic spying, more intervention overseas, and more control over people's personal lives. Big-government conservatism is back with a vengeance." 

Michael D. Tanner, Senior Fellow 

“A number of governors touted that they had balanced their state budgets. That’s no big deal because, unlike the federal government, every state is required to balance its budget every year. Fox News gave short-shrift to economic growth issues and cutting the federal budget, which are crucial issues for voters and for the future of the nation."

Chris Edwards, Director of Tax Policy Studies at Cato and Editor of

“The federal government will spend almost $4 trillion this year, and more next year. Overall, the candidates failed to detail plans on how to overhaul the federal  budget and limit its growth. Eighty-five percent of federal spending growth over the next decade is due to Social Security, our major medical programs, and interest on the national debt. Refusing to propose reforms ignores this reality." 

Nicole Kaeding, Budget Analyst 

"I was disappointed, but not surprised, by the tone of both debates, especially with respect to the size of the U.S. military, which remains the most dominant in the world by a very wide margin, and by the superficial and misleading portrayal of the nuclear deal with Iran. The GOP, with the possible exception of Sen. Paul, appears not to have learned the lessons of Iraq. Sen. Graham appears to have learned the least: he repeatedly called for sending U.S. troops back into Iraq. If the GOP continues to be associated with that disastrous war, the party’s nominee, no matter who that is, simply cannot be taken seriously on foreign policy." 

Christopher A. Preble, Vice President for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies

"Tonight's debate was disappointing on the foreign policy front for a couple of reasons. The debate was pretty narrowly focused on the Middle East, and only the second debate even touched on other foreign policy issues. It would have been nice to see debate on some of the other big strategic issues which the U.S. will face in the next decade: the pivot to Asia, how to handle a resurgent Russia or international trade issues, for example. Even on the Middle East, most candidates were also pretty lacking in substance, talking tough, but providing few concrete policy ideas. Hopefully future debates will see more substance and less grandstanding on foreign affairs issues."

Emma Ashford, Visiting Research Fellow 

"Fixing the country’s dysfunctional education system is crucial, but thankfully it didn’t come up much in the debate. Why? Because the federal government has no constitutional authority to govern education, and it has a very poor track record when it’s been – increasingly – involved. When education did briefly come up, that the candidates who spoke went to pains to say it should not be at all federally controlled, that was a good thing. In keeping with the Constitution, they shouldn’t have said much more than that." 

Neal McCluskey, Director of Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom 

“'Cross-examination is the greatest legal engine ever invented for the discovery of truth,' a great legal scholar once wrote. Fox News proved it -- and generated a superior, entertaining debate -- by aiming genuinely hard, personalized questions at the Republican front-runners. We know more now about which candidates are heedless of liberty and the U.S. Constitution, ill-prepared or inconsistent. Would that the press were this tough on all candidates." 

Walter Olson, Senior Fellow 

"The candidates agreed Obamacare has to go, yet they breathed not a word about what they would put in its place to make healthcare better, more affordable, and more secure. It's just as well: some of them have endorsed ideas that are best described as 'Obamacare lite.' Fortunately, there is still time for candidates to stand out by endorsing health care reforms that work."

Michael F. Cannon, Director of Health Policy Studies 

"Despite rapidly growing and bipartisan support for criminal justice reform, criminal justice issues received very little attention in this first week of debates and forums. If the GOP truly wants to expand its reach into younger and more diverse communities, the candidates must tackle important issues like drug prohibition, police misconduct, and overcriminalization. The limited government message rings hollow when it turns a blind eye to the criminal justice system, especially in light of so many high-profile cases of government misconduct."

Adam Bates, Policy Analyst with Cato’s Project on Criminal Justice

"We heard multiple candidates endorse a return to torture, call for massive increases in defense spending that would rival the biggest budgets of the Cold War, and attack people who didn't look or sound or think like them. Except for one candidate. Ohio Governor John Kasich seemed to be the only adult on stage. His answers were generally rational and coherent, whether that will matter in GOP primaries remains to be seen." 

Patrick G. Eddington, Policy Analyst in Homeland Security and Civil Liberties