Tonight Republican candidates debate the economy.

Right Wing economics comes with what you might expect: supply side theory, say, or Art Laffer’s tax curve (which was supposedly sketched out on a cocktail napkin). And despite 60-odd votes to repeal Obamacare, there’s nary a replacement bill in sight. It’s a governing philosophy that again and again seems long on ideology and short on evidence.

That doesn’t make it any less important to listen to what the candidates say tonight. In fact, even for someone who’s likely to disagree with 95% of what’s said this evening at the Coors Event Center, it's still interesting. One of these candidates may very well be the next President of the United States, and it's important to give them a chance to change your mind.

Or at least to surprise you.

Debates are a notoriously bad format for gleaning information, though, particularly when ten candidates have to share two hours on cable TV -- to say nothing of the four at the kids' table. Here are five things to watch for to get a real sense of where these potential Presidents are coming from when it comes to the economy:


One of the roles of a political party is to consolidate candidates around a few big ideas so that members of a Congress (or Parliament) can actually get things done.

These days in America there’s no small amount of irony in that historical fact.

In a field of candidates this large that makes for some troublesome dynamics, both for the candidates and the voters. Meaningfully differentiating yourself from nine other politicians on stage while at the same time staying within the party’s lane is no easy feat. That’s why one of the key things to look for will be how each candidate tries to distinguish him- or herself from the others.

The broad strokes of the Republican economic platform are by now well known: lower taxes, fewer regulations and a repeal of Obamacare among other issues. It’s a platform more or less shared by all of the candidates, with occasional bouts of apostasy.

During the debate, keep an eye on how the candidates try to differentiate themselves within this basket of set-piece policies. What’s most telling about how they’ll govern isn’t where they agree with each other, but the points on which they differ.


The biggest hobgoblin of Republican economic policies often comes from the devilsome details. We’ve written in the past about how self-proclaimed budget wonks like Paul Ryan frequently use magic asterisks and outlandish assumptions to cover the costs of their big ideas, and the tax plans put forth by candidates like Donald Trump, Jeb Bush and Ben Carson are no different.

Tonight the candidates will be asked for their positions on a wide range of economic issues and will mostly try to stick to their top line talking points. That’s not an indictment. Debates aren’t well suited to getting down into the nitty-gritty, and accountants don’t give particularly stirring speeches.

Numbers do make the world go round though.

Pay attention to anyone who gives actual details. The candidates who have concrete ideas about implementation, funding and costs are the ones most likely to actually get things done. As for the guys who don’t do details?

It’s just like in real life. There are lots of big picture baristas.

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There’s a lot of power in words, just look at our debt ceiling crisis. In the matter of a few years this bit of legislative arcana has gone from a quaint American tradition to a legitimate threat to your livelihood and mine, all because the rhetoric of “standing up to Obama” demands extreme action.

Unfortunately in a system as riddled with veto points as our own, extreme action tends to amount to grown men waving handmade signs on a balcony.

Although it’s entertaining to think of Congressmen in the world’s most powerful state spending their time on arts and crafts there will be no statues made of these leaders.

Pay attention to tonight’s rhetoric. Yes, it’s a primary debate, so there’ll be lots of red meat for the base, but look for signs of nuance and a retreat from the language of apocalyptic confrontation. Even if the Republicans keep Congress and take the White House in 2016 there’ll still be Democrats in a sizable minority. A president who sees them as an implacable enemy will get far less done than one who sees fellow citizens with whom he disagrees.

It’s a lesson most Democrats are hoping Hillary Clinton learns as well.

More than tax cuts

Tax cuts are a valuable tool of economic policy. They can push capital into the marketplace, encourage spending, and to greater or lesser degrees incentivize work and business creation. Not to mention the reasonable moral argument that government should take no more of anyone’s money than it absolutely needs.

But when it comes to guiding an economy tax cuts are only one tool in a kit that includes fiscal policy, monetary policy, interest rates and, yes, raising taxes as well.

Yet in recent elections the Republican candidates have increasingly reached for Abraham Lincoln’s hammer. Every problem looks like a nail, and every election calls for tax cuts. The leading conservative candidates have prescribed them for virtually every economic climate, including President George W. Bush’s about-face between 2000, when he advocated tax breaks as the proper response to a surplus, and 2004, when he advocated them while fighting two wars and running a deficit.

Whatever your opinion on federal tax rates, the United States operates the world’s largest and most complex economy stretching across every field of human endeavor and governing the lives of hundreds of millions of people. It is not a simple machine and it requires more nuance than a one-size-fits-all policy response.

When the candidates take the stage tonight, look for someone who advocates complexity. You wouldn’t go to a doctor who prescribed the same treatment for every condition. Why accept less from the leader of the free world?

The Slipping of Carson, Trump or Fiorina...

Now for a little prognostication.

Trump, Carson and Carly Fiorina are all competing for the same turf in the Republican primary and that can’t go on forever. Each has positioned him- or herself as a radical outsider, someone who can speak truth to power and simply get things done among the politicians.

The trouble is there’s only room on the stage for one Larry the Cable Guy Candidate.

Now, pundits have been predicting the end of all three of these candidacies in favor of an establishment figure for months now, only to see major figures such as Walker and Bush struggle. Indeed, it now looks like Bush may well follow in Walker’s footsteps out the door.

This isn’t one of those predictions. There is clearly a base of support for an insurgency candidate in the Republican Party right now. That won’t go away tonight, but at least one of these three will soon. Look for the early signs of consolidation.