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The Economy Wasn’t Invited to the Republican Debate

The economy was MIA in the first Republican presidential debate at the Quicken Loans Arena, Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

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Last week’s debate between Republican primary contenders was raucous and, depending on your standards for political discourse in an allegedly civilized country, even entertaining. What it wasn’t, especially as regards economic policy, was informative.

Why such a big hole in an otherwise far-ranging debate?

It’s not because Republican voters don’t care about our current economic challenges. A recent poll found that 53 percent of Republicans agree that “just a few people at the top have a chance to get ahead” (61 percent of people overall felt that way). Majorities of Republicans worry about the cost of college, health care, retirement savings, and whether their kids will do as well as they’ve done.

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Nor is it because the candidates themselves are insensitive to these issues. Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio have prominently expressed their concerns about inequality and its impact on the opportunities of the less advantaged.

It’s possible that the economic discussion was “Trumped” by the presence of the…um…outspoken front-runner. On the other hand, one might have expected that “The Donald’s” announcement that he’s both a serial defaulter (“on four occasions” he took advantaged of bankruptcy law) and a multi-billionaire might have generated some attacks from his competitors on economic fairness grounds.

Jared Bernstein, a former adviser to Vice President Biden, says the economy wasn’t invited to the GOP debate

Or it could be the fact that following the Great Recession, the economy has consistently improved under President Obama’s watch. As the administration never tires of pointing out (not that I blame them), the president has presided over 65 straight months wherein private employers have added a total of 13 million jobs. That’s tricky territory for those who want to argue that the toxic combination of Obama and Obamacare has been terrible for growth and jobs.

Still, for many in the middle-class, that growth has been something they read about in the paper rather than something they see reflected in their living standards, a point the White House often concedes, and thus seemingly fair game for a Republican debate.

There were, of course, some passing references to economic policies. Governors present and former bragged about how they balanced their budgets (a bit of an odd claim, since states are prohibited from running deficits). Numerous candidates weighed in on tax reform; Gov. Bush was asked to defend his 4 percent growth target for the economy (to double the current growth rate, he’d get rid of “job-killer” regulations, build the XL pipeline, and whack Obamacare).

But I can’t imagine any of these points scratch the itch of a voter facing economic challenges. A defining aspect of U.S.-style income inequality has been that too little growth has reached the middle class. So even if we could grow faster, which policies would the candidates propose to reconnect that growth to middle-class prosperity?

In fact, at least since Reagan, Republican candidates have been unable to answer that question, as the core principle of their economic policy has been to further enrich the wealthy under the assumption that they’ll create growth that will trickle down to everyone else. And as that model has been so thoroughly discredited—to the point where prominent conservative thinkers are issuing stern warnings that if they want to win, they must pursue policies to help those on the wrong side of the inequality divide—they’ve yet to come up with a replacement.

In other words, the economy didn’t show up at the debate because it wasn’t invited. And it wasn’t invited because it had no place to sit. With one exception, these candidates appeared to lack credible policy ideas to reconnect growth and prosperity.

The exception was Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s defense of his implementation of the Obamacare Medicaid expansion in his state. In a striking break from almost everything else said, and a particularly dramatic break from bashing anything to do with the government (excepting bankruptcy law), Gov. Kasich talked resonantly about helping the working poor, the mentally ill, and rehabilitation for prisoners suffering from drug addiction. He even noted an important fiscal point regarding Medicaid’s effective cost controls.

As I noted, this hole in the platform is a known shortcoming. Though he didn’t mention it at the debate, Marco Rubio has proposed to fill it with an idea to cut taxes for the wealthy by zeroing out capital gains and dividends taxation, while providing a robust tax credit for low and middle-income parents (though the plan actually hurts the very poor).

And yet, as Dylan Matthews reports, “supply-side…conservatives and libertarians have criticized the child tax credit proposal, principally for distracting from the…much more important project of cutting marginal tax rates.”

Again, none of this is new. George W. Bush ran on “compassionate conservatism” only to cut taxes disproportionately for the wealthy. Rep. Paul Ryan talks with conviction about lifting up the poor while writing budgets that decimate their supports.

Dress it up any way you like, the heart of conservative economic policy is still “trickle-down,” exactly the wrong prescription in the age of inequality. Apparently, there’s no debating that point.

Jared Bernstein, a former chief economist to Vice President Biden, is a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and author of the new book “The Reconnection Agenda: Reuniting Growth and Prosperity.”