Real Debate Questions for GOP Candidates

     The Republican debates have been a bit of a disappointment, at least for those seeking a Reaganesque vision of smaller government and economic liberty. Even the recent debate in Michigan, which was supposed to focus on economic issues, was less than illuminating. The major GOP candidates largely have confined themselves to generic statements in favor of smaller government, less waste, and extending the Bush tax cuts.


     Nothing is wrong with those concepts, to be sure, but the GOP has lost a lot of credibility on economic issues. During the Bush years, the size and scope of the state has expanded dramatically, and few Republicans have bothered to object. So it is understandable that fiscally conservative voters who favor smaller government are looking for more than just run-of-the-mill campaign rhetoric. Ideally, the candidates should answer the following questions:

What Is America’s Top Economic Challenge?


This is an easy question to dodge, but the answer would say a lot about a candidate. Meaningless responses about “keeping America prosperous” or “good jobs at good wages” would indicate a politician has little depth on economic issues. On the other hand, there are several substantive answers that would indicate a candidate has a grasp of what needs to be done. Under current law, the burden of government spending is projected to expand dramatically (largely because of the combination of an aging population and entitlement programs).


A candidate who said we need to undertake reforms to prevent government from consuming an ever-larger share of our nation’s economic output would deserve high marks. On a more philosophical level, a candidate would show some depth of understanding if he said that our greatest challenge is that more and more Americans are willing to surrender their freedom, deciding they want government to pay for their education, retirement and health care. Yes, such an answer would be rhetoric, but it would signify a recognition that we need to restore the ethos of self reliance in America.


Do You Want a Balanced Budget? If Yes, Why?


Republicans too often bang the drum of balanced budgets. But what’s so special about a balanced budget? Sweden has a balanced budget, after all, but that merely signifies that politicians are taxing away more than half of the nation’s economic output in order to finance a government that is consuming more than half of economic output. Milton Friedman famously said (and I’m paraphrasing) that he’d rather have a $1 trillion budget with a $200 billion deficit than a $2 trillion budget that is balanced. Do the candidates agree with the late Dr. Friedman, and understand that the problem is the size of government, not how it is financed?


Have You Taken the No-Tax-Increase Pledge? If No, Why Not? If Yes, How Do You Intend to Fulfill that Pledge?


Amazingly, only one of the four major candidates (Romney) has promised not to sign any legislation to increase the net tax burden. Failure to sign a no-tax pledge almost certainly means the candidate is willing to increase the amount of our nation’s output controlled by the political class. They should be forced to explain why they think the problem of excessive government can be solved by giving politicians more money to spend. However, as the first President Bush clearly demonstrated, making a pledge is no guarantee that a candidate puts taxpayers above special interests. So while signing the pledge is step one, candidates should then be aggressively quizzed about how they intend to uphold their promise.


With PAYGO Budget Rules, How Would You Extend the Bush Tax Cuts?


It seems every Republican wants to make the Bush tax cuts permanent, which is a laudable goal, but that won’t happen under current budget rules unless the growth of government is curtailed by an offsetting amount. The candidates should either identify the spending reforms they will make to “finance” the tax cuts, or they should explain why they want to change the budget rules.


Name at Least One Program, Agency, or Department You Would Abolish.


Regardless of whether existing tax cuts are extended or new tax cuts are enacted, government is too big. Yet a perusal of candidate web sites shows lots of hollow rhetoric about controlling size of government, but no specific proposals. Candidates should be mercilessly badgered to propose a list of programs, agencies, and departments to eliminate.


Do Americans Have Too Much Health Insurance, or Too Little?


The chief problem with American health care is too much third-party payment, meaning that normal market forces are not allowed to operate. Yet almost every politician seems to think that there should be more insurance and more third-party payment. This debate needs to take place, or America will wind up with single-payer, government-run health care.


Is It a Good Thing that About 40 Percent of Americans Are Off the Tax Rolls?


The vast majority of the tax burden is financed by the richest 10 percent of taxpayers, while the bottom 50 percent pay almost nothing. But even more troubling, a growing share of the population pays no tax, meaning that government is “free” for them. Do candidates think this is a good development?


More than 20 Nations Have Flat Tax Systems. Should America Join that Club?


The global flat tax revolution has been extremely successful, leading to faster growth, more jobs, and impressive Laffer-Curve effects on tax revenue. Why shouldn’t America be part of that club?


More than 30 Nations Have Personal Retirement Accounts. Should America Join that Club?


The worldwide shift to private retirement systems has been impressive, leading to both economic and fiscal benefits. Should America move in this direction?


Is It Time to End the Ethanol Boondoggle?


Last but not least, ethanol subsidies are a grotesque waste of money. If candidates are not willing to say no to Iowa corn growers (and say no to the campaign contributions from agribusiness interests), then it is unlikely that they have the courage and integrity to solve bigger economic challenges.


     Ronald Reagan did not solve all the problems of wasteful and excessive government. But at least he understood that government was the problem rather than the solution. And by aggressively campaigning against big government, he created the conditions that enabled him to have remarkable success in reducing the burden of taxes, spending, and regulation. If today’s GOP candidates actually want to make America a better place, they should follow the Gipper’s example.

Daniel J. Mitchell is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute specializing in taxes and other economic issues. He also serves as an adviser to the Media Research Center's Business & Media Institute.