With many Americans still worried about the economy, Republican and Democratic presidential candidates have taken turns promising to boost economic growth and help improve the fortunes of the middle class.
A recent Gallup survey found that 86 percent of Americans think the economy will be very or extremely important to their vote next year, a significantly higher percentage than concern about terrorism, foreign affairs or other issues.
For those looking for clues as to how the leading GOP presidential candidates would achieve a stronger economy, there was relatively little to go on in the first Republican presidential debate in Cleveland.
Billionaire Donald Trump, the leading candidate, and Ohio governor John Kasich, a former chair of the House Budget Committee, stressed the need to reduce the national debt and balance the budget to encourage economic growth. “And by the way, this country right now owes $19 trillion,” Trump said. “And they need somebody like me to straighten out that mess.”
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said the country needs someone like him who truly understands the changing nature of the economy. “The jobs that once sustained our middle class, they either don't pay enough or they are gone, and we need someone that understands that as our nominee,” Rubio said.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush insisted that he above all others could put the halting economy back on a fast track, pushing economic growth to as much as 4 percent annually and creating as many as 19 million jobs. The last president to accomplish that level of average GDP growth was Lyndon Johnson at the height of the Vietnam War, but Bush insists he could do it as well.
“We've done it 27 times since World War II,” he said. “I think we need to lift our spirits and have high, lofty expectations for this great country of ours. The new normal of two percent [growth] that the left is saying you can't do anything about is so dangerous for our country.”
For those who were looking for an in-depth discussion of the economy and new ideas for improving on President Obama’s record of job creation and a shrinking unemployment rate, the limitations imposed by the Fox News format were frustrating. The lack of a coherent stream of ideas had as much to do with the debate moderators bouncing around topics and posing provocative questions as a lack of clarity by the candidates.
One case in point was moderator Chris Wallace’s question to Trump about his ability to lead the country toward better economic growth. Rather than ask Trump for a list of his ideas to grow the economy, he brought up the fact that various Trump corporations, casinos and hotels have declared bankruptcy four times over the last 25 years.
The exchange turned into Trump defending his use of the federal bankruptcy laws rather than any meaningful discussion of economic growth. Which is too bad, because it would have been interesting to hear a guy who says he’s worth nearly $10 billion discuss his ideas for boosting the economy and cutting the debt.
Here is what a few of the candidates had to say about the economy:
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie:
“In the eight years before I became governor, spending was increased 56 percent, and in the eight years before I became governor, there was zero net private sector job growth in New Jersey. Zero. For eight years. So, what did we do? We came in, we balanced an $11 billion deficit on a $29 billion budget by cutting over 800 programs in the state budget. We brought the budget into balance with no tax increases. In fact, we vetoed five income tax increases during my time as governor. We cut business taxes $2.3 billion, and we cut regulation by one-third of what my predecessor put in place.
“And, what's happened since? A hundred ninety-two thousand private sector jobs in the five and a half years I've been governor. We have a lot of work to do in New Jersey, but I am darn proud we've brought our state back.”
Former neuro-surgeon Ben Carson:
“What I agree with is that we need a significantly changed taxation system. And the one that I've advocated is based on tithing, because I think God is a pretty fair guy. And he said, you know, if you give me a tithe, it doesn't matter how much you make. If you've had a bumper crop, you don't owe me triple tithes. And if you've had no crops at all, you don't owe me no tithes. So there must be something inherently fair about that.
“And that's why I've advocated a proportional tax system. You make $10 billion, you pay a billion. You make $10, you pay one. And everybody gets treated the same way. And you get rid of the deductions, you get rid of all the loopholes.”
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee
“And I'm still one who says that we can get rid of the Internal Revenue Service if we would pass the fair tax, which is a tax on consumption rather than a tax on people's income, and move power back where the founders believed it should have been all along.”
Ohio Gov. John Kasich:
“Economic growth is the key. Economic growth is the key to everything. But once you have economic growth, it’s important we reach out to people who live in the shadows. It means reaching out to people who don’t feel they have a fair deal. … America is a miracle country and we have to restore the sense that the miracle will apply to you.”
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush:
“There's 6 million people living in poverty today, more than when Barack Obama got elected. 6.5 million people are working part-time, most of whom want to work full-time. We've created rules and taxes on top of every aspiration of people, and the net result is we're not growing fast, income is not growing. A four percent growth strategy means you fix a convoluted tax code. You get in and you change every aspect of regulations that are job killers. You get rid of Obamacare and replace it with something that doesn't suppress wages and kill jobs.”