At the Tea Party Express/CNN debate in Tampa, Florida, on Monday the Republican presidential aspirants mostly agreed on the best way to solve our fiscal and economic woes: magic. Whenever moderator Wolf Blitzer or a Tea Party activist in the crowd or via video asked how exactly they would achieve their twin goals of balancing the federal budget and spurring job growth, they had no actual answer. Instead, they seemed to think the tooth fairy would leave $1 trillion under their West Wing pillow.
Every Republican wants to cut taxes and yet promises to somehow reduce the deficit. So they were asked, as they should be, what exactly they would cut. You might think it would be bad if one of them offered, say, food stamps, for the chopping block, but at least that would contain a proposal for progressives to engage. Instead they were even more mendacious by refusing to give an honest answer. Newt Gingrich ludicrously stated that there is enough waste, fraud and abuse to balance the budget without actually cutting any of the funding that finds its way to legitimate beneficiaries. Rick Santorum and Rick Perry both refused to say they would undo the massive Medicare prescription drug benefit enacted under President Bush, which Santorum voted for. In other words, they are all lying. Either they will increase the deficit or they will propose devastating spending cuts they were afraid to campaign on, or both.
“This country needs to wean itself from its heroin-like addiction to foreign oil,” said Jon Huntsman, when asked how he would lead economic growth as president. Huntsman opposes the sort of measures that would actually wean our addiction to oil by taxing its consumption. Increasing domestic production, which the Republicans all favor, does not actually eliminate our dependence on oil, “foreign” or otherwise. And that’s only partially because we don’t actually have as much oil on US territory as we consume. It’s because oil is a fungible commodity, and Exxon Mobil isn’t going to give away the oil it drills in Alaska to Americans for free. It’s a global market, and increased demand in China and India or an interruption in supply from Venezuela or Saudia Arabia will increase the global price that we pay for oil, wherever it happens to have been drilled.
“He had $800 billion stimulus in the first round of stimulus, it created zero jobs,” said Rick Perry. “This president does not understand how to free up the small business men and women...by lowering the tax burden.” So, to be clear, Perry thinks tax cuts spur economic growth. But the Recovery Act, which consisted largely of tax cuts, did not. Independent economists and the Congressional Budget Office estimate that it created or saved several million jobs. Blitzer followed up by asking whether Perry think tax cuts need to be paid for with spending cuts, which Perry completely ignored with the non sequitur that people don’t want new spending.
Rick Santorum proposes eliminating the corporate income tax altogether, on the suspect premise that it will cause companies to increase domestic manufacturing. How he’d make up for the lost revenue is anyone’s guess.
Ron Paul said “paying for a tax cut is the wrong principle,” because it assumes “the government owns all our money.” So taxes should be cut, revenues should thus decrease, and spending cuts to cover the lost revenue aren’t necessary because it is “our” money and not “the government’s.” Paul apparently doesn’t realize that in representative government we are the government, although looking at the very first sentence of the Constitution that he claims to obsessively follow ought to remind him. Left unexplained is how Paul would balance the budget if tax cuts don’t require concomitant spending cuts.
But Paul was actually the most honest and sensible of all the candidates. While no one else would specify what they would actually cut, Paul made it abundantly clear. We don’t need troops stationed in 130 countries, says Paul. Nor do we need to launch wars of choice with prolonged occupations. Paul hasn’t specified exactly how he would achieve the needed amount of savings to balance the budget, but at least he’s willing to talk about what programs we could do without. Every other Republican refuses to admit that Americans might have to actually give up anything.
Unfortunately, it is not the anti-imperialist strain of Paul’s thinking that his competitors have adopted. Instead, Paul’s bizarre opposition to the Federal Reserve has caught on. Paul actually believes in “sound money” such as a gold standard rather than letting the Fed manage the money supply. He went on about it ad nauseam during Republican administrations as well. But Rick Perry—who called Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s easing the money supply “almost treasonous”—Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum have discovered their commitment to “sound money” only since President Obama took office. All the candidates who spoke about the Fed said they wanted to eliminate its mandate to combat unemployment, so as to focus only on inflation. That’s a curious concern when unemployment is high and inflation is low, but it takes away from the federal government a major tool for turning around a weak economy. When there’s a Democrat in office, Republicans consider that a feature, not a bug, in the proposal. Republicans would worsen future recessions not only by handcuffing the Fed but by handcuffing the elected branches of the federal government as well. The “Balanced Budget Amendment” that they all support and Rommey talked up in the debate would cap government spending as a proportion of gross domestic product. That means when the economy shrinks and government spending automatically increases as a share of GDP because the denominator is smaller, the government would have to cut spending. No economist would approve, but Herbert Hoover must be smiling in his grave.
Health insurance is another example of Republicans’ magical thinking. They all hate “Obamacare” and promise to repeal it. But what would they do instead about 45 million uninsured Americans and rising healthcare costs? Nothing, except for warmed-over ideas like tort reform from Herman Cain and health savings accounts from Mitt Romney. Bachmann, as is her wont, ignored a question of how to treat the uninsured with her repeated talking points about how evil Obamacare is and how no one can match the intensity of her opposition to it. The most honest answer, as usual, came from Paul, who implied that he would let the uninsured die, saying they would “take responsibility” for their choice not to buy insurance. “That’s what freedom is all about,” says Paul. The freedom to die, that is. Instead of admitting that his policy would condemn to death the uninsured, he claimed that churches would pick up the slack. And, if they don’t, then surely the tooth fairy will.