Despite near-catastrophic moderation at Wednesday's CNBC-hosted third Republican primary debate and a panel of candidates that took every opportunity to rail against media bias and occasionally each other, a few themes for the economy managed to sneak through. The "Your Money, Your Vote" focused on the candidates' policies for taxes and business regulation.
In the lead up to the debate we recommended that readers pay attention to five key metrics while watching the debate. So how did the candidates do on them?
One of the biggest challenges for candidates in a primary this large is standing out from the pack while at the same time staying recognizably Republican.
On that score, the clear winner was John Kasich. Visibly frustrated with how this primary has gone, the Ohio governor directly attacked several of his competitors on policy if not by name, calling out “people” who “say that we should dismantle Medicare and Medicaid and leave the senior citizens out -- out in the -- in the cold. I've heard them talk about deporting 10 or 11 -- people here from this country out of this country, splitting families. I've heard about tax schemes that don't add up, that put our kids in -- in a deeper hole than they are today.”
It was a broadside and the first suggestion by a main stage candidate that massive tax cuts might not be affordable. Much like his proposed balanced budget amendment, it’s little more than a Hail Mary for the struggling Kasich campaign, but distinctive? Absolutely.
Unfortunately the other standout was the slow collapse of the Jeb Bush campaign. In a shockingly short amount of time Bush has slid from presumptive front-runner to also-ran and Donald Trump's whipping boy. Wednesday night, while sparring with Senator Marco Rubio, the former governor from Florida just looked like a kid getting picked on.
Confrontation just doesn’t come naturally to Bush argued John Hudak, editor of the Brookings Institute’s FixGov blog, and it’s crushing him.
“When he tries it’s like he’s reading a script of someone playing a bully in a play, but he’s not being a bully and those differences are so transparent and so obvious,” Hudak said. “For a bunch of Republicans looking for a president, there’s nothing more demeaning for a candidate than appearing that style of weak.”
“He doesn’t have the real wherewithal to run for president," Hudak said. "There’s been this building idea that he lacks what it takes, and tonight I think was the final nail in his coffin.”
“Data, data, data,” Sherlock Holmes famously cried. “I cannot build bricks without clay.” So let's get to the economic clay. We may be curious about your three-page tax policy Carly Fiorina, but what will you write on those three pages?
Much like their counterparts a few weeks ago, the candidates fell very far short when it came to real details.
“It was essentially identical to how Democrats did on economic policy,” Hudak said. “They put out a bunch of proposals and absolutely refused to explain how they would be paid for. Democrats did it by promising additional spending and Republicans did it by promising deeper tax cuts, [but] those are in budgeting and economic sense identical to the bottom line.”
In a format particularly unforgiving for wonky digressions, no one did worse than Dr. Ben Carson and his biblically-inspired flat tax. When questioned by CNBC panelists, Carson not only had no real plan to pay for the cuts, he couldn’t even remember exactly what he wants the flat tax to be. It “is gonna be much closer to 15%” was the best he could do.
He had one job: remember that number. According to his stump speeches it's 10%.
As far as a meaningful performance, there were two gems. In preparation for this debate Ted Cruz descended into the weeds (a complement in this context), releasing a substantive tax plan in advance of Wednesday night’s debate focused around a 10% flat tax.
Marco Rubio also shone when he laid out a substantive, meaningful set of ideas to reform the H1B visa program. Among his proposals the Senator suggested a 180 day waiting period before hiring from abroad, expansion of vocational training and strict regulations concerning pay for international hires. Catching his own digression into actual policy, the senator then promptly moved on to Benghazi.
Words matter, especially when it comes to a political system built around a strong opposition party and multiple veto points. So how did the candidates do when it came to tone and reasonable promises?
They struggled, primarily with the truth.
Numerous candidates took advantage of the ill-prepared moderators to get away with creative personal histories. An unusually quiet Donald Trump denied criticizing Facebook over the H1B visa program (it’s on his website). Carson denied his relationship with the Mannatech nutritional supplement company (he was on the company's website). Cruz argued that the cost of living has gone far up over Obama’s tenure, inflation has actually stayed at or below target levels for years.
It was a display of politics at their finest. Clinton should have emailed in.
Substantively, what came across in Wednesday night’s rhetoric was an absolute rejection of government as a meaningful philosophy for good. The candidates backed largely, although not entirely, off of personal attacks on Clinton and Obama to focus their attention on a sweeping rejections of the regulatory and intervention-based principles favored by Democrats.
“If you saw that blimp that got cut loose from Maryland today, it’s a perfect example of government,” Mike Huckabee said at one point. “I mean, what we had was something the government made – basically a bag of gas -- that got loose, destroyed everything in its path, left thousands of people powerless, but they couldn’t get rid of it because we had too much money invested in it. So we had to keep it.”
“That is out government today," he added. "We saw it in the blimp.”
More Than Tax Cuts...
"My plan," Cruz insisted at one point during the evening, “is the lowest personal rate any candidate up here has, and what it would also enable us to do is for every citizen to fill out their taxes on a postcard so we can eliminate the IRS.”
Expect little when it comes to taxes if one of these candidates takes office.
Over the course of two hours, each candidate scrambled to demonstrate how his or her proposal goes the furthest to cut and simplify the tax code. Their problem, as with any wrecking ball approach to policy, is a failure to grapple with why a complicated system exists in the first place. Good reasons or not, no politician will make headway if they don’t at least address how smart, well-meaning people ended up building the IRS we have today.
“It’s a disastrous idea,” Hudak said of plans such as Fiorina’s three-page proposal or Cruz’s postcard filing. “First off, it lacks all reflection of how dynamic the American economy is. And it also rejects the idea that you can create incentives through public policy to generate the types of outcomes that are desirable. And frankly for a former CEO it’s tremendously irresponsible. What complex system in her companies would [Fiorina] have wanted to solve with a quick three page document?”
Each candidate came up critically short on recognizing the real challenges in their own simplification plans, including how to stabilize the many consumer markets heavily influenced by deductions.
These are bumper sticker solutions. They’re big, they’re bold and they’re about as likely as Bernie Sanders’s free tuition for all.
Trump may have kept uncharacteristically quiet during the debate, but that probably did him a lot of favors. Neither Carson nor Fiorina looked very good up on that stage.
“I thought that Fiorina was really forgettable, and that was really damaging for her,” Hudak said.
Meanwhile Carson’s performance continued to show how little he understands his own issues.
“His performance tonight was just embarrassing,” Hudak said. “It was of an individual who has been told what a plan is, or a political position is, and had trouble recalling it. It was a performance that showed a lack of polish, a lack of understanding and a real lack of readiness to hold any elected office, no matter the presidency… The man who came into tonight with the most momentum I think is quickly going to find himself to be pretty unpalatable to most republican voters.”
Carson struggled and will need a big performance to recover from Wednesday night, but Fiorina’s came out far worse. She was simply irrelevant.
Look for her candidacy to fade.