The Republican Economic Debate, held Tuesday afternoon in Dearborn, MI, was mostly a predictable contest -- almost as predictable as when the Democrats talk economics.
*Said Fred Thompson: "I think there is no reason to believe that we're headed for a recession'¦.We're enjoying low inflation. We're enjoying low unemployment. The stock market seems to be doing pretty well'¦. But we are spending money we do not have."
*Said Mitt Romney, of himself and rival Rudy Giuliani: "We both agree with the need to cut taxes and have fought to do so'¦.We both believe in cutting back on spending as well."
*Said Rudy Giuliani: "The four trade deals'¦that are in front of Congress right now, which the Democrats are trying to block, would be good deals for the United States. In three of the four of them, we would actually get to export more than we're importing'¦.We're a country that depends on exports. And we're also an entrepreneurial country. We'¦should think about all these people that are coming out of poverty in China and India and elsewhere'¦as new customers. We should be thinking about, what can we sell to them: energy independence, health care? There's so much we can sell to them."
What's changed, though, is that polls show that even most Republicans, let alone most Americans, don't see it the way the nine candidates who stood on the stage in Dearborn do. As moderator Maria Bartiromo pointed out to Thompson in her very first question, two-thirds of Americans believe the country is headed toward recession. On Tuesday, as the GOP candidates gathered in Michigan, the Wall Street Journal reported that nearly six in ten Republicans agree that "foreign trade has been bad for the U.S. economy." While the same number of Republicans support continued tax cuts, a third support tax hikes on the wealthiest " to help reduce the federal deficit and to pay for expanding health care programs to cover the uninsured." When asked to choose the "most important" matter in the presidential race, only 17 percent chose economic issue. Economics came in fourth, behind national defense, domestic policy, and "moral issues." (Of course, those who oppose free trade aren't likely to find relief with the Democrats either, who tend to talk one way and vote another. It was Bill Clinton, after all, who delivered NAFTA.)
There were exceptions. All the candidates -- at least at this meeting in Michigan -- praised the contributions made to the country by'¦labor unions. Ron Paul fumed about monetary policy -- "we create money out of thin air and they still accept it as if it was backed by gold." (And he was the only candidate rightly incredulous over Mitt Romney's remark that he would "let the lawyers sort out" whether he could violate the Constitution and go to war against Iran without Congress' consent.) Duncan Hunter is a protectionist with shades of xenophobia. And Mike Huckabee is turning out to be the William Jennings Bryan of our time, combining in equal measure fundamentalist theology and economic populism. "For many people on this stage the economy's doing terrifically well, but for a lot of Americans it's not doing so well," Huckabee said. "The people who handle the bags and make the beds at our hotels and serve the food, many of them are having to work two jobs. And that's barely paying the rent'¦.They don't think that they can afford for their kids to go to college. They're pretty sure they're not going to be able to afford health insurance."
Huckabee was arguing specifically for a sales tax to replace the income tax. But if the polls are right, he may be in the best position -- on the issues at least -- to capture the disaffection the plagues the Republican base.
You can listen to the debate here, or read a transcript here or here.