Between the Crazy, Serious Ideas in Republican Debate

CNBC’s debate was the worst. But it also showed Republicans are serious about solving big problems.

Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey addresses the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, August 28, 2012
Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey addresses the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, August 28, 2012 (EPA)

Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate hosted by CNBC was easily the worst so far this year. The moderators seemed more interested in catching the candidates in hypocrisies and discrediting their looniest proposals than encouraging a substantive debate — but at the same time let some of the most outlandish claims go unchallenged.

Between the crazy, though, there were glimmers of a reform-minded conservative platform taking shape.

Focus on middle-class problems

Virtually all the candidates vying for the right’s 2016 presidential nomination recognized that growing income inequality is a problem. Virtually all of them argued that the point of conservative policies is to lift Americans out of poverty and make life a little easier for those tens of millions who identify as middle class.

This is a vast improvement over the last presidential election campaign in 2012 when the Republicans’ Mitt Romney infamously dismissed the “47 percent” of Americans who get government handouts.

The Atlantic Sentinel reported in April that Democrats are Republicans are now talking about the same problem and we argued in August that Republicans need to be the party of the middle class if they are going to win back the presidency next year. There was ample evidence on Wednesday night that the candidates realize as much.

Divisive social issues, like abortion and gay rights, went largely unmentioned; the sort of issues that can scare away centrist middle-class voters whose economic interests align more with Republicans than Democrats but who are culturally liberal.

Saving entitlements

Virtually all of the candidates who spoke about entitlements also recognized that the retirement age needs to go up and that Medicare, the social insurance program that pays health care for seniors, needs to be reformed if it is to stay affordable.

Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, was most radical, proposing to cut benefits for wealthy seniors.

Rand Paul, the libertarian senator from Kentucky, agreed, saying, “If you’re not willing to raise the age of retirement, you’re not serious about dealing with the issue.”

Health and pension programs already account for half of federal spending. Within ten years, they are projected to take up nearly two out of every three dollars spent in Washington.

John Kasich, the governor of Ohio, dismissed as “fantasy” the claims of those like property tycoon Donald Trump who say all that’s needed to keep entitlements affordable in the long term is higher economic growth. The problem isn’t a lack of growth; it’s demographics. America is aging (if slower than other developed nations) so it needs to change the way it finances support for seniors.

A more serious opponent of entitlement reform is former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee who argued on Wednesday that the promises of Medicare and Social Security should be kept. “This is not a matter of math,” he said. “It is a matter of morality.”

He called instead for a national effort to cure Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes and heart disease which are together responsible for most health spending. “We don’t have a health care crisis,” he said. “We have a health crisis.” Which may be true but banking on a cure for all four major diseases to prevent the federal government’s health programs going bankrupt is more like wishful thinking than a plan.

Marco Rubio, the Florida senator, smartly praised his fellow contenders for debating the issue at all when Democrats simply deny entitlements are becoming unaffordable. He also preempted left-wing attacks by insisting that whatever changes a Republican administration would make will not affect Americans of his parents’ generation who are either in or close to retirement. “I’m against anything that’s bad for my mother,” he said.

Tax reform

On tax policy, the quality was more mixed.

America’s tax code is overly complicated and riddled with deductions and exemptions that make it nigh impossible for the ordinary worker or a small business to file their taxes without professional help.

But to reduce the entire code to three pages, as businesswoman Carly Fiorina suggested, is unrealistic. Megan McArdle explains why at Bloomberg View.

So is Texas senator Ted Cruz’ proposal to shrink tax returns to a postcard and abolish the Internal Revenue Service. “Where do we mail the postcards?” McArdle wonders. “Publishers Clearing House?”

But other candidates had the right ideas, even if they did not elaborate much on them (nor were they asked to): cutting taxes for the working poor and reducing taxes on investment to stir growth.

Wednesday’s debate may not have been an altogether serious affair. But it did show there is a serious debate going on inside the Republican Party about how to tackle the country’s biggest problems.

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