January 14, 2016
Tonight’s debate is on Fox Business. The lead moderators are both long-time business anchors/commentators. While polls show Republicans are currently more focused on terrorism, the economy is a close second. Independents and Democrats put it first.
One of the two leading Democratic candidates wants to talk about economic fairness all the time and usually gets to. Very few of his positions or proposals match any aspect of Republican orthodoxy. This isn’t a shock, a Democratic Socialist and a post-Reagan Republican shouldn’t agree on much.
Though it’s often hard to figure out exactly where Hillary Clinton really stands, her leftward economic tilt is noticeable. She’s now against the Trans-Pacific Trade deal, against the Keystone XL pipeline, and for increased taxes on wealthy Americans (the last of which isn’t new, just a more prominent focus).
You can argue Hillary is closer to some Republicans on how to handle ISIS than she is Bernie Sanders. Many of the GOP candidates are all over the place on foreign policy. There’s definitely no consensus. People in both parties are in favor of criminal justice reform, it’s among the things President Obama and Speaker Ryan might make progress on this year.
The natural place to draw a clear contrast between Democratic candidates and Republicans is on the economy. Mind you, the GOP isn’t completely united. Donald Trump is way more protectionist (at least in tone) than Marco Rubio. Some candidates favor some version of a flat tax.
No GOP candidate is advocating increased taxes. The question is how much they would cut for which taxpayer. None are suggesting increased revenues. They may say their cuts will increase economic growth, leading to lower rates not causing lower revenues, but aren’t arguing for a larger share of GDP going to the federal government.
Bernie’s argument is basically the reverse. He wants to raise taxes on almost everyone, but argues that savings from having government covered health care make up for the extra taxation, leaving lower and middle income Americans net neutral at worst if they (or their employers) don’t have to worry about paying for health insurance.
It’s a sizeable philosophical difference. If Hillary is the candidate, she’ll need to sell voters on the idea that she can increase taxes on a small amount of them, without ensnaring the majority. The GOP response would be that you’re next. If it’s Bernie (far less likely, but still possible), it’s a total contrast.
If Trump is the nominee, we have some idea of his angle. It doesn’t involve the normal GOP approach. It’s trust me I’m Trump. I’ll negotiate better deals, I’ll keep China, Mexico, Japan, Micronesia, whomever, in check. Ford won’t be able to move a factory across the street unless I approve, etc.
Many economic conservatives are somewhere between apoplexy and angst over this tact. Republicans haven’t run on a platform anywhere near this since the 19th century.
As we’ve heard for months, the GOP establishment wants to stop Trump. They aren’t comfy with Cruz. This isn’t just East Coast financiers and moderate elites. It’s also the commentators and contributors for the National Review. It’s the Republican Speaker of the House, the guy who until recently was considered a strong conservative.
If Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, or John Kasich want to win the nomination and then the general election, they must articulate a clear, concise alternative economic vision. There are too many other options out there, whether Hillary’s light modification of Obamanomics, Bernie’s complete overhaul, or The Donald.
For people who think like they do (there’s more difference in presentation than substance between the four), it’s self-evident that this is a better approach. The Obama years brought recovery from the Great Recession, but not at a quick enough rate, or high enough ceiling. Plus it was very expensive on the deficit side.
All true, but Mitt Romney didn’t get real far by making this exact point. They think George W. Bush went astray by spending too much, not taxing too little. For the most part, the data agrees, but this isn’t something a majority of Americans accept on faith. The wreckage of 2008 makes it hard to argue for a return to anything W did.
One of the key components to the Trump argument is criticizing both Bush and Obama for their judgment and results. Remember, very few Americans approve of both, and plenty approve of neither. Cruz is next most willing to do this. They are both saying we don’t want to repeat much if anything that’s happened this millennium.
Rubio and the governors need to start from square one, assuming nobody is automatically on board with them and make a fresh case for why Republican economic orthodoxy makes sense. Too often, the GOP argument consists of lower taxes and we can grow the economy better than the other guys.
W cut taxes and the economy struggled. He cut taxes and workforce participation rates stagnated. He cut taxes and middle class wages stagnated. It’s great that the Kennedy/Johnson tax cuts helped stimulate economic growth. The average registered voter wasn’t born yet (plus they were Democrats).
It’s great that the Reagan tax cuts helped usher in almost two decades of solid growth. Plenty of voters weren’t in the workforce yet. Their only reference point is Bush 43. Any non-Trump, non-Cruz candidate is selling the idea of appealing to voters under 40 and moderates in a general election.
If they can’t, might as well choose one of the more polarizing figures who can at least turn out their base. Rubio has some neat, flowery words about a New American Century. His plan to pay more attention to vocational training makes total sense. He is providing a non-Obama path to dealing with worldwide economic change.
He’s also leaving out the texture needed to really sell people. It sounds good, it makes sense, I’m personally on board with it, but he’s not connecting the dots to show voters, both wary Republicans and up-for-grabs Independents or moderate Democrats, how he would do this and what the result would be.
Remember, almost nobody trusts government these days. People who do, aren’t likely to vote GOP anyway. He needs to get people who are skeptical about politicians and don’t want the feds meddling to buy his vision. That’s going to involve showing his work a bit more.
Many candidates are fond of referring to a plan or proposal posted on their website. Most of us won’t check it out. I haven’t and I write 20,000 words a week about the election. They only have 60-90 seconds at a time to speak, so it’s not exactly easy. That doesn’t make it less necessary.
Yes, it’s way easier to do the Trump routine in a minute than sell how vocational training programs for Millennials will increase incomes and rebuild the middle class. That’s why Trump is ahead of Rubio and the governors combined in national polling.
The same applies to Christie when talking about entitlements reform, Jeb when suggesting he can get us 4% annual GDP growth, or Kasich as he tells us he can balance the budget like he did in the 90s or grow jobs like he has in Ohio.
Not only do they need to do this if they want to stop Trump, not only is it an imperative in the fall, it’s necessary if they want a non-Cruz consensus choice in the party. For now, we’re guessing a bit on exactly where Ted is.
He’s pushing a version of flat tax, has mentioned returning to a gold standard, is hawkish on debt control/deficits. Cruz did an excellent job in the third debate of articulating how Obama policies have harmed many of the people who voted for him twice. If you think he’s not that far from Rand Paul on some of this, you’re not wrong.
Remember, Ron Paul was very popular with some of the non-Republican voters a GOP nominee might want to attract in the fall. If Cruz can pull this together properly, he might actually have an easier time with many swing voters, at least on the economic side of things.
It is not a rehash of Bush 43 or Obama, making it very easy for him to pitch as a new direction. Rubio and the governors can question the wisdom of a gold standard, doubt a flat tax is implementable and think Cruz’s budget estimates are unrealistic.
Given what they are up against, they’ll need to do better than that. The burden of proof is on those who are proposing things that have at least vague echoes of what previous GOP nominees have run on or W governed with.
If any of the four can take a small step in this direction tonight, it at least increases the chance they can build a solid case for their version of Republican, both now and later. One of the reasons Paul Ryan is attempting to take a larger than normal role in the national discourse is his concern over their willingness or ability to do so.
Who will step up?