Republicans will gather in Wisconsin tonight for another round of debate, and some things have changed since the last time they clashed. Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee have been banished unceremoniously to the undercard debate. Marco Rubio is now definitively ahead of Jeb Bush in the race for the establishment lane, amassing endorsements and donor support even as Jeb searches for a foothold. And Dr. Ben Carson, having risen in the polls to the point where Donald Trump feels the need to criticize him, is no longer the cheese to The Donald’s macaroni.
This could translate to a Fox Business debate that features more one-on-one attacks between the candidates—but it doesn’t have to be that way. There are serious questions to offer each of the candidates, questions that have yet to be answered despite multiple rounds of debate.
The CNBC debate should’ve presented the Republican presidential field with an important challenge: How do they plan to apply their conservative economic principles to a post-Obama era? What would they, as president, do to ignite the lagging economic recovery? How would they approach the contentious issue of trade? What would they do to prevent another bailout in the future, or guard against the still-present threat of Too Big To Fail?
Instead, we got to hear the answers to questions about why it’s not hypocritical to sit on Costco’s board and be super Christian. We have no better idea about what the leading candidates in the Republican field would do about any of these issues than we did just a few weeks ago. So the Fox Business team is already promising that they will be giving the viewers a far more substantive debate, with Neal Cavuto and Maria Bartiromo offering the antithesis of the John Harwood experience. To the degree that they have telegraphed their questions, everyone should get their Cabinet lists ready—cannot wait to hear about the guys on the shows, Donald Trump.
We’ll see how much this debate lives up to that billing. For the candidates, the incentive may be more bluster and less fact-centric conversation—those get dangerous fast. But these economic issues are incredibly significant. The American working class is in crisis due to a host of economic factors. The ability of Republicans to offer an agenda and a message that connects with these disaffected Americans could make the difference in whether they win back the heartland states they need to take the White House. So tonight’s debate will hopefully be more substantive and more focused on the very real differences candidates has about taxes, spending, entitlements, Wall Street, and trade.
Some of the questions that ought to be asked of all candidates include:
1. Based on where the economy and tax rates are right now, do you think your proposed tax cuts pay for themselves? If so, how long does it take? If not, do you think the revenue losses should be offset by spending cuts, deficit-financing, or a combination of both?
2. Do you believe international trade makes life for the average American better or worse?
3. In 2008, the U.S. government bailed out the banks. Putting aside whether you supported that or potential future bailouts, what’s your recommended policy to prevent the need for future bailouts of huge, interconnected banks?
4. Do you support raising the federal minimum wage? Do you support a federal minimum wage at all? Do you think government should be setting the wage for an hour of work?
5. The costs of health care and education are far outpacing inflation and the cost of other critical essentials like food and clothing. Why do you think this is the case, and what would you do to change this trend?
6. Nearly everyone on stage is a supporter of the Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires U.S. refiners to purchase and blend ethanol with their gasoline, effectively requires American citizens to buy it. Why is the RFS so important that it would make you support mandates and government raising the prices of food and other goods?
7. What worries you more right now: inflation or deflation? Why?
There are all sorts of ways to come at this for specific candidates. Donald Trump repeatedly bolstered his argument against globalism and free trade by noting a recent Nabisco decision to move an Oreo cookie plant to Mexico. But the biggest reason U.S. baking and candy businesses are moving offshore at all is because of artificially high U.S. sugar prices caused by our sugar program—a program emphatically supported by Marco Rubio, and more recently opposed by Jeb Bush.
There is a clear question to be asked here about the value of free trade and the support for a market-warping sugar program, which increases the cost of food for Americans, and an opportunity for Rubio and Bush to go at it over something more substantive than made-up outrage over senatorial insufficiency.
More particularly to Trump, an economic debate is an opportunity to call him to make the case for his skewed view of American manufacturing. Trump’s flawed perspective on the offshoring problem is actually a reminder that businesses often can’t compete due to U.S. regulations and protectionism on critical inputs. At a recent speech in South Carolina, he lamented the decline of American manufacturing caused by foreign trade and investment, and promised new restrictions on imports and capital to save manufacturing.
According to U.S. government data, however, American manufacturing output as measured by value is at an all-time high, and states like South Carolina are experiencing a manufacturing boom driven in part by foreign companies like BMW and Michelin and critical imports like steel and rubber. Trump should be asked by the moderators to make the case for his trade and investment restrictions, particularly given the number of manufacturing workers who benefit greatly from the current, globalized system.
These questions are critically important, and the candidates on stage are divided on many of the key policy points. As Ken Watanabe said: Let them fight! But let’s hope it’s over something more important than the moderators.