The top-polling Republican candidates didn't want to talk last month to "values voters" about sex or to black and Hispanic audiences about race. But they didn't pass up the chance on Oct. 9 to go to Dearborn, Michigan, in the heartland of the middle-class economic squeeze, to talk about money and exorcise the economic specter that haunts their dreams — spending.
As the dollar plunges and more and more homes go up on the foreclosure auction block, as the economy slumps toward a possible recession, ordinary voters might be forgiven for having other things on their minds than the federal budget. The average Joe may be tempted to look at the numbers — federal spending at 20.3 percent of the nation's output, up a little from the later Clinton years, significantly lower than at any time under Presidents Reagan and Bush the Elder, pretty much average for the last half century — and figure that his ever-growing credit card balance and the price of gasoline are bigger issues.
Not the GOP candidates. They know what's important. And, oh, did those boys in their expensive suits ever give that old devil, spending, a good whipping.
They flailed it fifty-six times in less than two hours. They brought it up more often than jobs (seventeen times) or wages (twice) or pensions (zero) or saving (once) or investment (once), and almost as often as jobs and health care put together. They called it by almost every epithet imaginable — "out of control," "excessive," "pork barrel," "deficit spending," "overspending," "outrageous wasteful spending." Everything but "Bush spending."
But as the blogosphere was quick (and a little unkind) to point out, they didn't have much to say about what spending they would actually cut.
Blogging at The Corner, supply-sider Larry Kudlow, who writes "that Republicans were put on this planet to cut spending and taxes," is still looking for some substance on the menu. "Aside from a few exceptions last night, there really wasn't much beef. ... Former Sen. Fred Thompson did talk about cutting Social Security benefits by shifting to a cost-of-living index from the wage index," an approach Kudlow opposes. "The Republican party needs to re-brand itself as the fiscal-disciplinarian party. GOP candidates must get specific about which departments and program clusters they're going to curtail. The sooner the better. The burden is on their backs to reestablish credibility."
From the other side of political spectrum, liberal economist Jared Bernstein, writing at TPM's CoffeeHouse, notes that, for all the GOP candidates' anti-spending rhetoric, they punctuated the debate with calls to do more on health care, infrastructure, schools, and assistance to people left behind by the global marketplace.
"Clearly they're stuck in a vice: they want voters to believe that they can have their tax-cuts and their desired services. In this regard, their 'less spending' rhetoric is usually phony. Not only are they unable to be specific, which ought to tell you something, but they can't even bring themselves to say the words," Bernstein writes. With the exception of Thompson's call to cut Social Security benefits, "when it comes to entitlements, which they'd really love to cut, they want to 'look at' them, 'fix' them, 'strengthen' them, and 'solve' them."
For Steve Benen at Carpetbagger Report, the debate showed a Republican field caught in a bind between voters increasingly anxious about the economy and the political need to defend GOP supply-side orthodoxy.
Apart from Mike Huckabee, who allowed that Americans who watched the debate might not buy "this stage talk about great the economy is," Benen doesn't believe the leading candidates have political maneuvering room on the economy.
"Bush has already executed what they perceive as the right economic strategy: he lavished the rich with tax breaks. If Giuliani, Thompson, McCain, and Romney concede that the economy has left millions of Americans behind, they would have to acknowledge some of the shortcomings of Bush's strategy. If they pretend that the economy is great, just as it is, and they promise to deliver more of the same, the candidates look wildly out of touch."
Or as Matthew Ylgesias summed up the candidates' Dearborn performance in a headline at TheAtlantic: "Like Bush, But Without the Deep Understanding of the Issues."
Perhaps it's time to change the subject. Bomb Iran, anyone?