William F. Buckley described the conservative impulse as the desire to stand athwart history and yell “stop.” The candidates vying for the GOP’s 2012 presidential nomination want to force history backward.
The Republicans at the debate Tuesday evening were clear in their diagnosis of America’s economic woes: It’s the government’s fault. Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) was quite explicit on this point. “If you look at the problem with the economic meltdown, you can trace it right back to the federal government,” she said. No one around the table disagreed. Quite the opposite, in fact. “I want to second what Michele said,” offered Newt Gingrich.
If the problem is government, then it stands to reason that the solution is less government. A lot less. And the discussion, at times, took the form of a game of one-upsmanship over just how much less government the candidate would promise.
“I introduced the bill to repeal Dodd-Frank,” bragged Bachmann, referring to the financial regulation overhaul.
“Repeal Dodd-Frank, and get rid of the capital gains tax,” countered Herman Cain.
“Dodd-Frank obviously is a disaster,” agreed Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.). “But Sarbanes-Oxley costs a trillion dollars, too. Let’s repeal that, too!”
It was Gingrich, however, who emerged with the most creative solution to dissuade Congress from expanding the reach of government. “If you want to put people in jail,” he said, “you ought to start with Barney Frank and Chris Dodd.”
Protesters may want to occupy Wall Street, but the Republican candidates want the government to vacate it as quickly as possible.
Their proposals to roll back the growth and complexity of the state did not stop with the financial sector. Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman promoted his plan to “clean all of the loopholes and the deductions” out of the tax code, which would mean removing the mortgage-interest deduction and the exclusion for employer-based health care, just for starters.
Cain scoffed at such incrementalism. His 9-9-9 plan, he said, “starts with throwing out the current tax code,” and then replaces it with a 9 percent sales tax, a 9 percent income tax and a 9 percent corporate tax.
Paul was not impressed. “What I hear here is just tinkering with the current system and not looking at something new and different,” he said, going on to suggest “a free-market economy without a Federal Reserve system.” That would be new and different.
Mitt Romney promised that on Day One, “all 50 states” would get a waiver to slip free from “Obamacare.” And on Day Two? “We have to repeal Obamacare,” he said.
If every idea uttered around moderator Charlie Rose’s table was made into law tomorrow, the financial-regulation bill would be gone, as would health-care reform and the Federal Reserve. The tax credits that support the housing market would vanish, and so too would Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-backed housing giants that guarantee the majority of new loans. There would be a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution, which would require more than $1 trillion in spending cuts if it was to be satisfied in 2013, and China would be branded a currency manipulator.
It is hard to predict the effect all of that would have on the economy. The housing sector, which is already weak, would probably freeze. The financial markets, which depend heavily on the central bank’s management of the economy, would be in uncharted territory. The tax code would be completely different. Businesses would no longer be able to offer health care to their employees without paying taxes on it, which would kick the struts out from under the employer-based health-care market that provides insurance to more than 150 million Americans.
Of course, not every solution proposed at the debate will become law. And Romney, the candidate who leads in most of the polls, was more careful with his recommendations than his competitors were. Challenged by Cain to recite his 59 economic recommendations by heart and persuade the audience that they are “simple, transparent, efficient, fair and neutral,” Romney replied that “simple answers” are “oftentimes inadequate.”
This got a laugh out of Cain. “So, no, it is not simple, is what you are saying?” he asked.
But Romney didn’t back down. “To get this economy restructured fundamentally,” he said, “to put America on a path to be the most competitive place in the world to create jobs, is going to take someone who knows how to do it. And it is not one or two things. It is a good number of things.”
For Romney, however, like for all the Republican candidates, all of those things are really the same thing: less government. In that way, even Romney’s solution is simple. The question is whether our economic problems are simple — whether weak consumer demand and heavy household debt and millions of vacant homes and 9 percent unemployment and turmoil in Europe and paralysis in Washington can be solved by the steady application of small-government principles.