The Republican Party’s presidential contenders appeared to have few substantial policy disagreements between them during a televised debate in Michigan on Wednesday. Virtually all of them reserved their stauchest criticism for President Barack Obama and his economic policy but they were short on the specifics of their alternative approaches.
With Italy in political turmoil and apparently on the verge of a financial crisis, none of the conservatives on stage Wednesday night had any desire to entangle the United States in a bailout of the world’s eighth largest economy. Rather they considered Europe’s spiraling debt crisis a warning for Americans. “If we don’t get serious about cutting and capping our spending and balancing our budget, you’re going to find America in the same position Italy is in four or five years from now and that is unacceptable,” said former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney who is considered the frontrunner in the race for the Republican nomination.
Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, the other moderate Republican on stage, agreed. He wouldn’t commit to financial support for banks that have invested heavily in European debt. Instead, he chastised those institutions that “have an implied bailout by the taxpayers in this country and that means we’re setting ourselves up for disaster again. As long as we have banks that are too big to fail,” Huntsman predicted, “we’re going to catch the contagion.” He couldn’t say how exactly he would make banks smaller though.
Few of the candidates laid out specific budget cuts although they all championed fiscal consolidation. Texas governor Rick Perry struggled to remember the three departments of government he would like to eliminate. “I would do away with Education, the Commerce and, let’s see, I can’t. The third one I can’t,” he said while fumbling with his notes. “Oops.”
He recalled that it was the Department of Energy he would like to dismantle later in the debate but the damage had been done. It was “the ‘oops’ heard ’round the world,” according to Politico — a bit of an overstatement but certainly the scene affirmed Perry’s reputation as a poor debater.
The candidates agreed that taxes should be cut and the regulatory burden on businesses lifted in order to stir job creation. As former House speaker Newt Gingrich put it, “All of us on this stage represent a dramatically greater likelihood of getting to a paycheck and leaving behind food stamps as does Barack Obama.” According to Perry, “We need to go out there and stick a big ol’ flag in the middle of America that says, ‘Open for business again.'” He touted his plan for an optional 20 percent flat tax which would significantly reduce the tax burden on businesses and high-income earners.
The candidates were also unanimous in their opposition to the Democrats’ health-care reform legislation which mandates that all Americans purchase insurance. They favored extending more “options” to seniors who are on Medicare, as Governor Perry put it, and “let the states figure out how to make Medicaid work.”
Romney agreed that states should decide how to care for their medically uninsured which is the defense he’s offered consistently to justify a health reform measure he enacted in Massachusetts when he was governor there. Opponents have likened it to the president’s health-care law because it also requires that citizens have insurance.
Although Romney has hesitated to endorse privatization of Social Security which pays pensions to seniors, he did say to favor private health savings accounts on Wednesday to cover medical expenses. “People have to have a stake in what the costs and the quality as well is of their health care,” he suggested.
Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann promised to enable people to buy insurance from other states which is currently prohibited by federal law. “Today there’s an insurance monopoly in every state in the country and I would end that monopoly and let any Americans go anywhere they want,” she said. “That’s the free market.”