WASHINGTON – The real headline from this week’s Republican debate wasn’t that the candidates clashed over immigration and national security. It was that they agreed on economic policies that have proved unpopular and unwise – and that may make the eventual nominee unelectable.
The central issue facing most American families is that incomes, for all but the wealthy, are stagnant. The consensus response from the GOP field is a big collective shrug.
The evening began with front-runners Donald Trump and Ben Carson announcing they would not raise the federal minimum wage, presently a paltry $7.25 an hour.
“I hate to say it, but we have to leave it the way it is,” said Trump, the allegedly populist billionaire. “People have to go out, they have to work really hard and have to get into that upper stratum. But we cannot do this if we’re going to compete with the rest of the world. We just can’t do it.”
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You have to wonder about all those jobs Trump promises to bring to this country from China and Mexico. Are they in sweatshops? Paying starvation wages?
Carson claimed that “every time we raise the minimum wage, the number of jobless people increases” – a notion many economists reject – and then launched into a vague spiel about how government should “allow people to ascend the ladder of opportunity” rather than “give them everything and keep them dependent.” It will be news to low-wage workers that they are so coddled.
Marco Rubio, who is running third in most national polls, volunteered that “if you raise the minimum wage, you’re going to make people more expensive than a machine.” Then he praised vocational education and came out with one of the debate’s more memorable lines: “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.”
Leave aside the grammatical error – he should have said “fewer” philosophers. Also leave aside what we all learned in Economics 101, which is that if there were more welders, their services would have to become cheaper. As soon as the words were out of Rubio’s mouth, fact-checker columnists pounced with data showing that philosophy majors actually make more than welders – and that those who go on to become philosophy professors make a lot more.
Ah, but poor, defenseless facts stood no chance in this debate, which aired on Fox Business Network. The moderators used the devastating tactic of giving the candidates ample rope with which to tie themselves in hopeless knots.
Carly Fiorina was asked the most incisive question of the evening: Given that the economy added an average of 240,000 jobs a month under Bill Clinton and 107,000 a month under Barack Obama, but only 13,000 a month under George W. Bush, “how are you going to respond to the claim that Democratic presidents are better at creating jobs than Republicans?”
Fiorina’s response was a classic: “Well, first of all, I must say, as I think about that question, I think about a woman I met the other day … “ She never ventured within a mile of the jobs question, instead announcing that “problems have gotten much worse under Democrats” and repeating her pledge to reduce the U.S. tax code to three pages. I guess she plans to use a really tiny font.
Jeb Bush predictably offered a heaping helping of establishment Republican economic orthodoxy: more tax cuts and more deregulation. “I think we need to repeal every rule that Barack Obama has in terms of work in progress, every one of them,” Bush said. “For those that are already in existence … we have to start over.”
There were times when the candidates just made no sense. Ted Cruz, for one, called for a return to the gold standard – a ridiculous idea that, among other impacts, would threaten the dollar’s status as the leading reserve currency in global finance.
Cruz also said he would “absolutely not” bail out the big banks if they got in trouble again like they did in 2008. John Kasich reasonably pushed back at the idea of allowing worldwide financial catastrophe for the sake of ideological purity. Carson weighed in with utter nonsense about how we should have policies “that don’t allow [the banks] to just enlarge themselves at the expense of smaller entities.” He went on to talk about low interest rates, stock buybacks and the “stampede of regulation.” It was, let’s face it, gibberish.
What we did not hear Tuesday night was a plan to boost the earnings of middle-class workers. That’s the economic task of our time, but the Republican Party clearly wants no part of it.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.