The Republican presidential candidates’ three debates have been sometimes compelling, often contentious and always amusing.
We’ve learned a lot less about how any of the candidates would govern. They have chiefly relied on cliches, buzzwords and attempts to prove which of them most disdains President Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. There is a similar weakness in the smaller Democratic field, which has had only one debate; subsequent forums may provide more meat.
The Republican void was on display in the debate last week focusing on the party’s favorite issue: taxes. All the candidates would cut taxes extensively, though most would add trillions to the debt. The proposals laid out by the two front- runners, Donald Trump and Ben Carson, would create the largest budget shortfalls.
They also tried to camouflage their plans’ heavy tilt in favor of the more affluent. Trump stresses that he’d end the carried interest tax loophole benefiting private-equity and hedge fund executives. He also would eliminate the estate tax, which is paid by only 0.2 percent of the wealthiest families. Killing the carried-interest preference would raise $2 billion a year; killing the estate tax would cost $20 billion in annual revenue.
The much-maligned moderator at last week’s debate was basically correct to say that Sen. Marco Rubio’s tax cuts would give almost twice as much to the rich as to the middle class, though the candidate denied it. An analysis by the conservative Tax Foundation of the initial Rubio proposal – which has been only slightly modified – showed it would give the biggest benefits to the poorest Americans, but that the top 1 percent would get about twice as much, on a percentage basis, as middle- and working-class citizens.
To understand why candidates avoid budget specifics, look at the one realistic proposal, presented by Ohio Gov. John Kasich. He would slash taxes and offer a balanced budget in eight years. Some of the entitlement changes he advocates would be tough; but the real problem is that he would freeze non-defense discretionary spending for eight years, bringing it far below the levels in the Eisenhower administration as a percentage of the economy. These cutbacks would affect big-ticket items such as veterans’ health care, the Border Patrol and health research, and would be politically impossible.
The Affordable Care Act, long the bete noire of Republicans, was mentioned only twice in passing at the debate. Demanding repeal is easy; a replacement is much harder to come up with. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has tried. His initiative would lower some costs and lessen regulation, but it also would provide fewer benefits, weaken a ban on discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions and limit tax-free health insurance offered by employers.
The immigration discussion has been dominated by Trump’s promise of a “beautiful” wall along the southern border that he insists Mexico will pay for. Climate change was barely mentioned outside condemnations of Obama’s policies in this area.
Similarly, all the candidates went after the president for weakness on foreign policy and national security. With the exception of Sen. Lindsey Graham, who doesn’t register sufficiently in polls to get on the main stage, they offered few specifics on how they would fight terrorists, or counter Russian incursions and China’s assertive territorial claims.
“The only Republican with a defined national security policy is Lindsey Graham,” says John Nagl, formerly a top adviser to Gen. David Petraeus and now the headmaster at the Haverford School. “They certainly aren’t willing to give defense the resources it needs, to impose a gasoline tax to fund national security needs, or to do anything serious.”
To be sure, there have been deceptive debates in past presidential campaigns. Obama presented himself as a protectionist, vowing to renegotiate trade pacts. George W. Bush promised a “humble” foreign policy. A focal point in the legendary 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debate were Quemoy and Matsu, two islands in the Taiwan Strait that no one remembers today.
Still, campaigns and debates matter. They helped Americans know what to expect from the Ronald Reagan and Obama presidencies. The candidates and media have yet to meet that standard this time.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.