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Two Hours, Nine Candidates, and Almost Nothing New

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By Steven Pearlstein
Wednesday, October 10, 2007

To hear it from the Republican presidential hopefuls, the only way for the party to win back the trust of voters on economic issues is to start telling the truth.

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Well, fellas, what are you waiting for?

Instead, for two hours yesterday, the nine white men who would be president were each peddling the Big Lie that the only way to ensure economic growth is by cutting all the taxes ever created -- and when you're finished with that, cutting them some more.

Two hours, nine candidates, each one vowing to slash federal spending, but only one (Mitt Romney) able to mention a program whose funding he would cut (some advanced technology program).

Two hours, nine candidates and not one with anything to offer to millions of Americans now facing foreclosure on their houses in what is shaping up as the worst housing crisis since the Great Depression.

Two hours, nine candidates, each acknowledging that something needs to be done to rein in entitlement spending, but only one (Fred Thompson) willing to offer a concrete suggestion for doing it (indexing Social Security benefits to increases in cost of living, not wages).

Two hours, nine candidates, and lots of debate about whether globalization has been good or bad, but only one (John McCain) with anything fresh to offer to workers who are the losers from free trade (wage insurance for displaced older workers).

Two hours, nine candidates, every one professing his support for the right of workers to form a union, but not one willing to acknowledge that that right no longer exists because of rampant employer intimidation.

Two hours, nine candidates, but only one (Mike Huckabee) willing to draw the connection between growing disenchantment with the economy, widening income inequality and the obscene pay packages of chief executives and hedge fund managers.

Two hours, nine candidates, all eager to hurl the scurrilous charge of "government-run health care" against Hillary Clinton but not one willing to call for an end to Medicare as we know it.

It is becoming clear, not just from this and previous debates but also from their speeches and position papers, that the leading Republican candidates aren't serious about economic issues.

Romney, for example, issued a 23-point economic plan yesterday that, if you didn't know better, you might think was a parody written by Jon Stewart for "The Daily Show."

In addition to proposing additional cuts in every major revenue source (income, inheritance and corporate taxes), he would effectively eliminate all taxes on interest, dividends and capital gains; make all health-care spending tax-deductible; give additional tax breaks to make America "energy independent"; and provide a rebate to businesses for tax payments that might be "embedded" in the cost of anything they export. He opposes raising the cap on wages subject to the payroll tax.

Clearly, Romney's view is that the tax code is supposed to be used in the service of every economic objective other than raising revenue for government services. He figures his other initiatives -- like repairing transportation infrastructure, improving education and worker retraining, and strictly enforcing immigration laws -- can be accomplished without spending an extra dime.

While he's at it, Romney intends to tear up the Constitution by giving himself a line-item veto and the right to cut back any congressional appropriation by 25 percent, while requiring a 60 percent congressional "supermajority" to raise any tax.

And in a stunning display of intellectual inconsistency, Romney is determined to let each state figure out its best solution to the health-care crisis but not let every state figure out how to structure its legal system, instead imposing a federal one-size-fits-all version of tort reform.

This is hardly the kind of program you'd expect from a seasoned businessman and investor with a deep and sophisticated understanding of how an advanced industrial economy sustains growth and creates wealth. It reads, rather, like a last-minute cut-and-paste job by the same old political operatives and spinmeisters who've been running Republican primary campaigns for decades.

As hackneyed as it is, however, the Romney plan is a four-course meal compared with the policy pu-pu platter offered so far by Thompson, Rudy Giuliani and even the straight-talking McCain.

"We need market-based approaches to reform that guarantee benefits for those who need them and embrace personal responsibility and cost-effectiveness without raising taxes," Thompson says about the looming entitlement crisis, managing to combine just about every conservative policy cliche in a single sentence.

And we certainly all look forward to the getting the details on Thompson's plan for the "dissolution of the IRS as we know it" and a "new tax code that gets the government out of our citizens' pocketbooks."

Who writes this stuff, anyway?

Given the competition, it is easy to understand why Giuliani is leading this sad pack of candidates. In policy terms, he's offered nothing particularly original or detailed. But his basic message -- that economic policy should be built around the self-reliance and entrepreneurial success of the American people -- is a soothing antidote to the relentless negativism of the Democratic candidates.

Judged by who can offer a serious approach to economic policy, the hands-down winner in the Republican race so far is Huckabee, who combines intelligence, candor and comfortable familiarity with the issues and a practical approach anchored in solid conservative beliefs. If only the political press were as impressed with the quality of a candidate's program as with his name recognition, it would be Huckabee, not Thompson, who was energizing the Republican contest.


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