On economic matters, Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson stand above the rest of the Republican field both on substance and on refusal to pander to populist myths. Of the two, Giuliani is the more engaging, the more memorable, and the more clear — but Thompson wasn’t bad at all.
That’s the quick-response reaction to Tuesday’s Michigan presidential debate on economic matters. The truth is, when social issues are off the table, Giuliani is as solidly a Reaganite conservative as there is, and Thompson is not far behind.
On the other hand, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is about as economically conservative as was liberal New York Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller — which means that on substance at least, Huckabee absolutely stunk up the stage, especially when he refused to back President George W. Bush’s veto of the crazily socialistic expansion of the SCHIP children’s health program. (Huckabee was so liberal overall that Clinton’s lefty former Labor Secretary positively gushed over him in post-debate analysis on CNBC.)
And former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney took some sickening cheap shots at Giuliani on the subject of the line-item veto while pandering on several other fronts, further cementing his growing reputation as a calculating politician rather than a statesman. (Giuliani, in fact, is absolutely correct: The line-item veto is a good idea, but a pure line-item veto can’t be accomplished without a constitutional amendment.)
Giuliani and Thompson were best because they were firm for low taxes, low spending, entitlement reform, and free markets, and because they were bullish on the current economy and on the long-term prospects for national prosperity without being Pollyannaish about the federal budgetary problems down the road.
Giuliani made the best sustained case against Democratic big-government plans, especially against Hillary Clinton’s various neo-Great-Society dreams. He made the best case against burdensome federal regulations. He made a strong case for the four pending free-trade deals with friendly governments such as Columbia and South Korea. He made the strongest case for nuclear power. And he was positively Jack Kemp-like on the things Kemp always was best on, namely that growth and entrepreneurship and industriousness and optimism are better economic stratagems than are the command-and control decisions of even the most brilliant government planners.
“The market is a wonderful thing,” Giuliani insisted, and backed it up again and again.
As for Thompson, he had the guts and wisdom to use short answers, to the point, when short answers were all that were required, and he absolutely refused to repeat liberal shibboleths. “In a dynamic economy,” he said, “some jobs are lost and some are gained. So far, a whole lot more are being gained than the ones being lost.” And: “We have the second highest corporate tax penalty in the world. We must do something about that.” And: “I don’t buy the concept that any reduction in tax cuts is necessarily lost revenue. It just stays in the taxpayers’ pockets rather than going to the government.” And: “the AMT [alternative minimum tax] ought to be phased out. In the short term, it ought to be indexed for inflation.”
And Thompson bravely addressed entitlements several times, hinting at support for private accounts while openly advocating a necessary change in the formula for cost-of-living adjustments.
Substantively, it was good stuff — even if, at other times, his delivery was a bit, well, mumblesome (to coin a word).
The other candidates (with the possible exception of the no-chance Sen. Sam Brownback) showed either intellectual confusion of staggering proportions or else were Johnny-One-Notes.
The otherwise highly admirable Rep. Duncan Hunter monomaniacally turned almost every question back to the need for get-tough trade policies, and went beyond his earlier call for tax-cuts for American exporters (good!) and into a call for import duties against China (a dicey proposition).
Romney praised the benefits of free trade and small government while strongly supporting today’s hideously wasteful system of farm subsidies. He praised free markets in health care but then claimed that his government mandate-heavy health “reform” in Massachusetts is a big success. And he bizarrely said that the “greatest long-term threat” to the American economy is our lack of optimism.
American hero John McCain ruined some wonderful calls for government spending restraint (including opposition to wasteful ethanol subsidies) with repeated, content-less insistence that “Washington” needs to “bring health costs down” for “everybody,” and with a call for job retraining programs while “making up the compensation” for the jobs workers have lost.
Huckabee, meanwhile, deserves special, negative mention because his populism so often ranged over the line, into sheer demagoguery. In the very same answer in which he talked about how large the hordes of people there are, all spending money, at malls across America, he sang a sad song about how many people are “barely paying the rent” because the economy is supposedly so bad. He refused to directly answer a question on ethanol subsidies while hinting broadly that he would support them. He made it sound as if huge throngs of American manufacturing workers are losing jobs with $70,000 annual salaries and being forced to take ones paying just $15,000. (!!!!) And he continually bashed high executive salaries to such an extent that he sounded almost indistinguishable from liberal John Edwards at full, fulminating pitch about “Two Americas.”
It is no wonder that the conservative Club For Growth considers Huckabee to be a menace.
On economic matters, conservatives rightly insist on just three, fairly simple (but not simplistic) principles: limited and unobtrusive government, domestic reliance on free markets, and taxes as low and uncomplicated as reasonably possible. With the exception of Huckabee, every candidate on stage on Tuesday is far better on those issues than every Democrat in the race. But only Giuliani and Thompson appear fully resolute in support of those principles. Economic conservatives are fortunate that both of them are on the campaign trail.