Fox Business Network hosted a GOP debate on the economy last night. Which was apparently news to the eight contenders on the stage, who fumbled their way through.
A funny thing happened during the most recent GOP presidential debate: The GOP forgot to actually discuss major economic issues at the economic forum.
Oh, the economy was a topic, of course. There was a fair amount of grousing at “crony capitalism” and a fight to see who could reduce the tax code into the fewest pages. Texas Senator Ted Cruz bemoaned a complicated system that he claimed had “more words in it than the Bible, and not nearly as good,” while businesswoman Carly Fiorina vowed she could rewrite the entire policy in less than three pages. Ben Carson even compared his flat tax to tithing and it was proposed as the sort of tax plan God would most approve of.
Obamacare, too, became a target for the cadre of candidates, as well it should be. For the right, repeal and replace has been a mantra from the moment that the Affordable Care Act’s ink first dried on the desk of President Obama. Unsurprisingly, despite two hours to explain their own policies, there was no real answer as to how to better help Americans obtain affordable health care if Obamacare was repealed, other than an insistence from Fiorina that high risk insurers could use state health insurance pools, and that the “free market” would figure out the rest.
What did quickly become clear, however, is that when it comes to “economic issues,” what the GOP presidential contenders view as important economic topics, and what most everyday American voters see as the same, are a vast chasm apart. Referring subtly to the chaos that was the last GOP debate—another financial forum, hosted by CNBC news that the entire party panned as being biased and non-journalistic—Fox Business News moderator Neil Cavuto quickly set the tone for the evening. The debate, according to Cavuto, would be entirely about “The economy and what each of you would do to improve it—no more, no less.”
Despite Cavuto’s assurances, the debate veered far off topic. The evening opened with questions on the minimum wage, inspired by the recent Fight for 15 campaign raising public awareness of the need for a living wage for hourly workers (an issue all of the candidates were clear that they opposed), and that’s when the debate first went astray: Dr. Ben Carson was offered a chance to address the media’s coverage of the inconsistencies and possible fabrications in his personal story. He not only took the opening to chastise the media for bias, but to segue it into an opportunity to call Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton a liar and bring up the Republican boogeyman of Benghazi—just the first of what would be a long foray into foreign policy that would stretch all throughout the two-hour debate.
In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that as much time was spent discussing foreign policy as was spent talking about meat-and-potato economic issues during the Fox Business forum. Even the one clear instance in which real mom-and-pop-at-the-kitchen-table economics was being analyzed, foreign policy quickly jumped in to derail it. While Florida Senator Marco Rubio patiently attempted to explain his “pro-family” tax policy, one that would apparently offer more and bigger child tax credits for growing families, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul aggressively jumped on him, declaring him to not truly be a conservative if his was promoting policies that increased spending, and compared it to increasing spending on military and national defense. Soon, a full-scale battle over whether or not the GOP should be spending dollars on more fighting—especially in foreign countries—enveloped the entire GOP slate, and discussion of a child tax credit, or any pro-family economic talk, completely dissipated.
For a debate that was ostensibly meant to focus on economic issues, for those of us who care about the state of U.S. domestic economics, the topic was frustratingly ignored. There was no question about daycare or universal pre-K, and the many ways that daycare credits or state-funding early childhood education doesn’t just help a child close the gap mentally, but helps women reenter the workforce earlier or allows them to have more disposable income to pump into the economy. No one asked whether offering paid family leave at a state or federal level could make it easier for parents to juggle a new addition to the family, or if incentives to companies that offer such leave plans could have an impact on building businesses. There was no debate over social safety net programs or whether removing the welfare cap is a policy that could help to decrease abortions, as so many of the GOP candidates claim they want to do. No one thought to address the police system and how it often uses fines and fees to aid city budgets that have been cut to the bone at the expense of those who can least afford it. There wasn’t even any mention of schools, federally subsidized school lunches, or the growing trend of school vouchers and whether the candidates support these programs.
As for student loans and the debt that is crippling a generation? Not a single word, unless you count Rubio promoting tech schools over becoming a “philosopher.”
If the Fox Business News GOP debate was any indicator, in the Republican world all economic blueprints revolve around banks and big businesses. The answer to every policy question is a plea for less taxes, removing all business restrictions and regulations, and lowering all wage protections because then everyone would have a job—and, based on unlivable wages, probably three or four of them. Economic inequality would be cured by a flat tax, and the opportunity for each person to simply start his or her own business and become an entrepreneur. The American dream means everyone can start from nothing and become a success, and if you don’t manage to do so, you simply aren’t trying hard enough. Handouts, they claim, aren’t needed anymore.
What the party forgets is that for many, a handout is just the grip they need to pull themselves up in the first place. For every person in the audience cheering on their promises to cut all spending by one percent, or raise the age for Social Security, a hundred more are stretching pay check to pay check, looking for a way to pay the bills and keep their families safe for another month.
For these Americans, the economy is more than repealing Dodd-Frank or capping a 15 percent tax for all earners. Those are the real economic issues, and the GOP can’t ignore them forever.
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