Republican candidates for president met in Boulder, Colorado Wednesday night for their third debate. CNBC hosted the debate and was a stand-in for the “lame stream media” – becoming a punching bag for most of the candidates when asked tough questions. In watching the pre-debate roundtable hosted by CNBC’s conservative Larry Kudlow, however, one would have thought that the cable network’s sister station was Fox News, not MSNBC.
Here are my top ten takeaways.
1. Even the so-called adults in the room have childish answers on the economy. John Kasich, the governor of Ohio, takes the opening question of the night to reprise his recent attack on the craziness of the primary electorate “picking someone who cannot do this job” – knocking Donald Trump for talking about “splitting families” in deporting 11 million people; Dr. Ben Carson for wanting to dismantle Medicare and Medicaid leaving seniors “out in the cold;” and Jeb! Bush, and frankly the rest of the field, for “tax schemes that don’t add up” and leaving us in a “deeper hole.” Yet, when asked explain his own economic proposals, Kasich says that he wants to make entitlements into block grants for the states to run and pass a Balance Budget Amendment. In other words, Kasich would impose the kind of austerity that accelerated the Great Depression and to encase that one-size-fits-all macroeconomic policy (which is rarely, if ever, appropriate) in the Constitution. This does not inspire confidence.
2. Dr. Carson over-studied for the debate. His head is full of facts and figures that he tries to spit out to show his newfound policy chops. But in attempting to discuss the federal deficit, Carson takes a pregnant pause and almost has a Rick Perry “oops” moment. He also misses an easy opportunity to oppose price controls on medicine, which Chris Christie cleans up for him. Carson is much better with his big, thematic responses stemming from his faith and storied career. At least he doesn’t take the bait on a question about gay rights and compare homosexuality to pedophilia and bestiality as he has in the past. He takes the high road, saying “Constitution protects everybody, regardless of their sexual orientation. . . .” Is the doctor mellowing – or just on hiatus until he makes his next outlandish comparison to Nazism or slavery?
3. The Summer of Trump gives way to the Fall. Despite falling poll numbers, Trump still stand at center-podium, for now. But it becomes clear that Trump hasn’t even read the anemic policy papers on his own website. When asked about his criticism of Mark Zuckerberg for to his desire to increase the number of H1B visas to allow more highly educated graduates to stay in the U.S., Trump demurs.
“I was not at all critical of [Zuckerberg]. I was not at all. In fact, frankly, he’s complaining about the fact that we’re losing some of the most talented people. They go to Harvard. They go to Yale. They go to Princeton. They come from another country and they’re immediately sent out. I am all in favor of keeping these talented people here so they can go to work in Silicon Valley.”
Yet, Trump’s online policy paper on immigration says the opposite: “Mark Zuckerberg’s personal Senator, Marco Rubio, has a bill to triple H-1Bs that would decimate women and minorities.” As Trump might say, how are the governors and senators on that stage losing to this guy? Trump’s most memorable lines of the night are naturally about himself: inside baseball on how he dictated the terms and format of the CNBC debate.
4. Republicans talk “income inequality,” but say nothing. Given the growth of the economy under President Obama, Republicans are missing a big talking point. That doesn’t stop the debaters from decrying the increase in income inequality under this Administration. But their solutions are worse than the disease! Rand Paul and Ted Cruz want to audit the Federal Reserve and put us back on the gold standard; and Mike Huckabee pushes deregulation; Carly Fiorina wants to abolish the minimum wage; and Kasich wants his balanced budget – all of which will increase income inequality. Indeed, what they all fail to understand is that the reason income inequality has increased is because other than the fiscal stimulus in Obama’s 2009 American Recovery Act, we have been living under Republican control of Congress since the party took back the House in the 2010 midterms. As a result, the only federal institution capable of keeping the economy afloat has been the Fed with its monetary stimulus known as quantitative easing. The problem with monetary stimulus is that it flows through and enriches Wall Street, the very ones who caused the Great Recession. Senator Cruz decries “QE1, QE2, QE3, QE-infinity.” But he also opposes the kind of infrastructure spending and any other kind of jobs program that would shore up the missing demand in the economy and grow the middle class.
5. Christie talks climate changes, but says nothing. Christie is shamed for his position that “climate change is undeniable [and] that human activity contributes to it.” He quickly disavows the Democratic solution of a carbon tax (despite Republican orthodoxy that you tax it, you shrink it). He then lamely explains his solution was to invest in all energies, renewable and dirty (oil and gas) alike. Say what, Mr. Straight-talker?
6. Trump and Huckabee are economic populists and out of step with today’s Republican party. Trump’s version of industrial policy is protectionism. He wants to impose tariffs and other trade barriers to bring manufacturing back to the United States. Huckabee battles Christie, Jeb! Bush and Paul who all want to means test Social Security. Carson wants to abolish, I mean, privatize it. Huckabee also has his own version of an industrial policy aimed at federal funding to find cures for diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and cancer. Finally, Uncle Sugar is making some sense.
7. ObamaCare is no longer a Republican rallying cry. The ACA is invoked only twice during the entire debate – once by Carly Fiorina in passing and once by Ted Cruz in his closing statement. And even then, Cruz’s reference to ObamaCare is in the past tense, trumpeting how he previously led the uprising to, unsuccessfully, stop the law. Nothing about repealing it in the future. Moving on.
8. Rubio is polished, and Jeb!’ has awful timing. Marco Rubio’s best lines are defensive – responding to pointed questions about his inability to manage his own household finances and missing votes in the Senate. After Rubio smoothly turns around a question about his meager voting record into a big applause line in criticizing the liberal media that dared ask, Bush repeats the charge and asks Rubio to resign from the Senate. It makes him look small, out-of-step and like the Man – upset that his employees are coming in late to work and taking too many days off. Very establishment of Jeb! And rehearsed. In fact, almost all of Bush’s lines seem pre-planned and not particularly responsive to the questions posed by the moderators. Even if Rubio’s lines are also rehearsed, they are delivered convincingly. Rubio is polished, but some folks at home must wonder how many times a week he has to shave.
9. Trump want to get rid of Super-PACS. Great idea, but that’s only because he’s a billionaire who can self-fund his campaign. When asked about the legality of anonymous donors, Trump has called for transparency, but never endorsed a law requiring disclosure. The topic at tonight’s debate allows Rubio to get in another dig at the mainstream media, calling it the ultimate Democratic super-PAC. The line serves double duty. It gets huge applause and avoids a substantive response to the question.
10. Fiorina says everything in stac-ca-to. Whether it’s about Planned Parenthood in the second debate (“Watch a fully formed fetus on the table. Its heart beating. Its legs kicking.”) or taxes, minimum wage or big government in the third debate (“[T]his big powerful, corrupt bureaucracy works now only for the big. The powerful. The wealthy. And the well-connected .”), Fiorina’s distinctive speaking style makes all her points sound the same. Oh, that’s because they are all the same small-government/low-tax pablum. The professional politicians, except Jeb!, have a good night in Boulder. Can’t wait for the next debate! Not sure if Jeb! will be there.