Watching CNBC

Another night, another debate. On Tuesday, the Republicans talked economics in Dearborn. National Review Online gathered a group — virtually — to weigh in. Here’s what they thought.

Brian Darling
Republicans have a long way to go to regain the trust of the American people, but the debate showed some hopeful signs of change and reform. Herewith, some thumbnail observations…

Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney went after each other. That kind of feistiness will be needed in the general election.

Fred Thompson dared suggest reform of “third-rail” entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare. “We are spending money we do not have,” he said, calling the situation “unsustainable.” That’s straight talk. (Move over, John McCain.)

Ron Paul was great on monetary policy. He understands that manipulating the money supply hurts the middle class. (Too bad he’s running for commander-in-chief, not chairman of the Federal Reserve.)

Tom Tancredo brought every question back to the problem of illegal immigration. Some find it laughable, but he serves his country well by forcing the issue into every debate.

Duncan Hunter engaged in some healthy China bashing when he criticized giving Communist China “most favored nation” trading status.

Sam Brownback gets two thumbs up. One for categorically ruling out higher taxes. Another for his innovative idea to let people opt into a flat tax — it’s a great way to open the door to comprehensive tax reform.

Feistiness, “straight talk,” principled conservative positions and innovative ideas… if one candidate can roll them all together, he just might be able to pull his party out of a tailspin and into the White House in next year’s election.

— Brian Darling is director of U.S. Senate Relations at the Heritage Foundation.

John Hood
Let’s face it: few Republican primary voters, much less anyone else, are going to watch a Tuesday-afternoon debate broadcast on cable. If the Michigan face-off has any influence, it will come from the basic media narrative plus any memorable gaffes.

Evaluated on that basis, the honest thing to do is immediately to exclude any references to candidates other than Giuliani, Romney, and Thompson. I’m not trying to be mean, but it’s October. Only these three now have a shot at the nomination. They know it. Giuliani and Romney directed most of their fire at each other for good reason. Thompson was circumspect, trying not to doom his late-entry candidacy with a gaffe. Although his sobriety sometimes verged on somnolence, Thompson made no mistakes and drew little hostile fire.

Giuliani and Romney, on the other hand, scored some hits but also uttered some silly statements. Giuliani vociferously defended his constitutional challenge of the line-item veto, which not a good theme for a Republican presidential candidate (and it didn’t help when he complained about how much its use was going to cost the City of New York — I’m sure that thrilled the hearts of South Carolina conservatives). And Romney promised to consult his attorneys before striking Iran. Well, yes, hire good legal help, Mr. CEO, but what’s your opinion?

The media narrative was “Giuliani and Romney battle over taxes.” No big gaffes. No big change.

— John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.

Matt Kibbe
The best line of the debate came not from the presidential wannabes on stage in Michigan, but from Larry Kudlow in his post debate commentary. Kudlow says: “Republicans were created by God to cut spending and lower taxes.” Amen to that, but the Republican gospel according to the standing presidential field seems too cautious to fulfill their destinies.

I was hoping to hear more about freedom as the simple and true principle from which an entire economic agenda could spring. No such luck Tuesday night.

Overall the field seems committed to smaller government principles, with some exceptions: Mike Huckabee does seem to be cribbing from John Edwards’s class warfare playbook, and Duncan Hunter is potentially better than his tired, 1930’s era protectionist slogans.

Conservatives collectively celebrate Reagan because he unapologetically organized his politics and policies around the fundamental values of personal freedom and economic liberty. Conservative voters are anxiously awaiting an heir, not to replace Reagan, but to rebuild a Republican brand committed to cutting taxes, shrinking the size government, and championing freedom. But first, kill all of the overpaid, overcautious political consultants who counsel their candidates from saying anything meaningful, like Reagan would.

— Matt Kibbe is president of FreedomWorks.

John Pitney
Though few noticed it at the time, Fred Thompson gave the bravest answer of the night. It came when Maria Bartiromo asked for “specific steps to maintain long-term solvency of Social Security.”

At first, he talked about fostering growth and curbing discretionary spending. Politically safe stuff, but such moves won’t save the system. Then he added that the future benefit level should be “indexed to inflation instead of wages, as it is today.”

Currently, the law indexes initial Social Security benefits to average wage increases. After that, the checks grow with the Consumer Price Index. Wages rise faster than prices. So if the law indexed the initial benefit to prices, that benefit would be a bit smaller. But over time, the cumulative effect would be large. With benefits growing more slowly, the system would save billions.

If that proposition sounds reasonable to you, then you aren’t a Democratic opposition researcher. Thompson knows that the other side will flay him for trying to “cut” Social Security. He’s floated the idea before, and the Kossacks have already started coming after him.

Fred Thompson’s best movie is In the Line of Fire, about a man who will take a bullet for the sake of duty. It’s a good title for his stand on Social Security.

— John J. Pitney Jr. is Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College.

Stephen Slivinski
Tuesday’s debate showed, to those of us who still value limited government, the extent of the GOP rebuilding process to date — a preview of what Republicans would stand for in a post-Bush world. The top-tier candidates avoided the crass populism some of the second-tier candidates favor and defended free trade instead. It also seems that the candidates have at least learned something from the electoral trouncing last year since each of them ran screaming from the wreckage that is the GOP spending record of the past six years. Yet each candidate seems unwilling or unable to enunciate a coherent view of what the role of government should be in a free society. The support for free trade was saddled with an incongruent quest for some nebulous sort of “energy independence.” The promises to “control” health care costs were mostly uninfluenced by the notion that it was government meddling that caused the problems in the first place. Even a tepid endorsement of a private-account solution to the impending bankruptcy of Medicare and Social Security was nowhere to be heard. Some limited government conservatives might have been slightly reassured by the look of the GOP future on Tuesday, but I’m sure many were left wanting, too.

— Stephen Slivinski is director of budget studies at the Cato Institute, and author of the book, Buck Wild: How Republicans Broke the Bank and Became the Party of Big Government.

Pat Toomey
Tuesday night’s debate offered more questions than answers. American voters walked away knowing many things — Sam Brownback loves his mother and Rudy Giuliani has a horrible singing voice — but specifics about the candidates’ economic platforms were few and far between. That said, some snippets stand out:

Huckabee is the John Edwards of the Republican presidential candidates, favoring populist class-warfare rhetoric over free-market principles. His refusal to embrace free trade and his refusal to support the President’s veto of SCHIP merely reaffirms what the Club for Growth PAC has been saying since day one: Tax Hike Mike is a big-government liberal in elephant’s clothing.

Kudos to John McCain for taking an unequivocal stance in favor of free trade and reminding American voters that protectionism à la Smoot-Hawley would be a disaster for the American economy. Mayor Giuliani also embraced free trade without qualifications, a welcome pronouncement given his opposition to NAFTA while mayor of New York City in 1993. Senator Thompson’s call for pushing China to revalue its currency, begs the question of whether Thompson supports legislation currently pending in Congress that would impose duties or tariffs on China in retaliation.

When asked about Social Security, Senator Thompson missed an opportunity to embrace a free-market solution involving personal Social Security accounts that offer workers a higher rate of return on their investments and the freedom to be independent in their retirement years. Instead, Thompson offered a patch solution of indexing benefits to inflation instead of wages that does not get at the heart of the long-term problem and only aggravate the poor rate of return workers currently receive. Unfortunately, Thompson is not alone. None of the Republican candidates appeared interested in talking about long-term solutions for America’s overbloated entitlement programs.

— Pat Toomey is president of the Club for Growth.