One of the most striking and mystifying aspects of the Republican presidential primary has been the candidates’ inability—or unwillingness—to offer up any kind of coherent economic prescription for the country. That didn’t change on Thursday night. On the Fox Business debate stage in South Carolina, the remaining GOP field had the floor to rebut President Barack Obama’s rosy picture of the American economy during this week’s State of the Union.
Instead, they pivoted to fear-mongering on foreign policy.
The tone was set with the debate’s very first question, posed to Senator Ted Cruz. Fox Business moderator Maria Bartiromo asked him to respond to Obama’s declaration earlier this week: “Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction.”
That should have been a softball, ready for the surging candidate to hit out of the park. Instead, Cruz launched into a prepared digression on the American soldiers captured and released by Iran before addressing the actual question—with another digression. “The president tried to paint a rosy picture of jobs,” he said. “And you know, he’s right. If you’re a Washington lobbyist, if you make your money in and around Washington, things are doing great. The millionaires and billionaires are doing great under Obama.”
Cruz played on Obama’s own words on the sources of inequality in his State of the Union. “Food Stamp recipients didn’t cause the financial crisis; recklessness on Wall Street did,” Obama said on Tuesday. “Immigrants aren’t the reason wages haven’t gone up enough; those decisions are made in the boardrooms that too often put quarterly earnings over long-term returns. It’s sure not the average family watching tonight that avoids paying taxes through offshore accounts.”
Cruz turned that around, pinning the blame exclusively on the president for rising inequality—not on the wealthy. “Median wages have stagnated. And the Obama-Clinton economy has left behind the working men and women of this country,” he said.
It was like that all night: The candidates never took the bait Obama set up for them, to disprove they are doing anything but “peddling fiction,” that his agenda—addressing economic inequality, immigration reform, and energy regulations—has left Americans worse off. Instead, the Republicans beat the drum on fear of ISIS and terrorism abroad, but never provided a counter to Obama’s economic claims.
If the GOP debate revealed one thing about these candidates’ views of rising inequality—a hot topic in the Democratic primary—it’s that they can’t quite bring themselves to cast the wealthy in a bad light.
Ohio Governor John Kasich said that Americans shouldn’t hate the rich—that’s just not American. People are “very concerned about” the economy, he said. “And they wonder whether somebody is getting something to—keeping them from getting it. That’s not the America that I’ve ever known. My father used to say, “Johnny, we never—we don’t hate the rich. We just want to be the rich.”’
Ben Carson shot back at Bernie Sanders and Clinton, who he claimed “would say it’s those evil rich people” who are to blame for inequality. Carson said they’re the wrong target; it’s “the evil government that’s putting all these regulations on us.”
Throughout the night, Republicans proved more comfortable playing to their base’s fear of terrorism than directly rebutting the president’s economic victory lap. Maybe that’s because they can’t muster the same strong descriptive language for how Obama has set fire to the economic world as they have for his foreign policy. It’s so much easier to berate the president on his approach to ISIS all night, as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie did: “If you’re worried about the world being on fire, you’re worried about how we’re going to use our military, you’re worried about strengthening our military, and you’re worried most of all about keeping your homes and your families safe and secure, you cannot give Hillary Clinton a third term of Barack Obama’s leadership,” he said.
But what about Obama’s leadership on the economy? The answers were more timid—with the exception, not surprisingly, of Donald Trump, who in his usual style promised he’d “make America rich again and make America great again.”
Why were the candidates so quiet about the economy on Thursday night? Simple. The Republicans don’t have a recipe for addressing economic inequality, instead focusing exclusively on tax breaks or highly regressive flat taxes that help the top earners. As my colleague Suzy Khimm has explained, “Bush, Marco Rubio, and Trump have all released tax plans that they are trying to sell as a boon for ordinary families.” That’s a hard sell, to say the least. A conservative estimate of Trump’s plan, for example, would lower the middle 40 to 50 percent of American wage earners’ taxes by 5.3 percent, but the wealthiest would see almost a 22 percent decrease. Carson and Cruz have called for flat taxes—a highly regressive policy.
Because they have such shallow policies to draw on, the GOP finds it easier to play on fears of an uncertain international landscape. That works just fine when they’re pitching themselves to an anxious, unhappy Republican base. But when one of these candidates faces Clinton or Sanders in the general election, the Democratic nominee will easily poke holes through his paper-thin economic message.