Ford's Spirit at the GOP Debate

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Maybe they should have held last night's GOP presidential debate at the Gerald Ford library in Michigan instead of at Ronald Reagan's in California. On economic policy, at least, it sure seemed more like the 1970s, with Fordesque thinking on display rather than Reaganomics. Look at this answer by John McCain to moderator Chris Matthews's question on which taxes he would like to cut:

"I give the president of the United States the line-item veto on these bills as well as spending bills. The alternative minimum tax is obviously eating Americans alive, and it's got to be repealed.... Another one I think is important is a $3,000 tax credit for people to be able to purchase health insurance, so low-income Americans will have access to healthcare, which is an amazing and difficult problem today; and a simpler, flatter, fair tax so that Americans don't have to spend $140 billion, as they just did last April, to prepare tax reform–returns. "

First of all, with today's tax preparation software like TurboTax, filling outyour annual tax return is a hassle rather than the sort of oppressive nightmare that would justify radical tax reform. Now what might justify radical tax reform is the goal of creating a tax system that provides an efficient and fertile environment for the sort of economic growth, innovation, and productivity that will increase our standard of living. But McCain chose to emphasize the old-fashioned "tax cuts mean money in your pocket" approach that pre-Reagan Republicans focused on, as Bob Dole did in 1996.

The pro-growth, supply-side wing of the GOP was already skeptical of McCain–who voted against the Bush tax cuts–and that answer certainly did nothing to help him with that crowd. But none of the other major candidates did a whole lot better in creating a rationale for tax reform, though several advocated switching to a flat tax or a consumption tax system. Nor did they give any insight into how they would pay for AMT reform, extending the Bush tax cuts or new investment tax cuts–as Mitt Romney proposed–in a political environment where Democratic budget rules force just such hard choices. The only guy who made a comprehensive case for how tax policy affects our economy's ability to compete globally was Duncan Hunter, who argued that "manufacturing taxes" put us at a disadvantage with other nations:

"Right now our manufacturers are getting killed. We're seeing manufacturing move offshore because the dumb trade deal that we signed with the rest of the world allows all of our exports to be taxed twice, while their exports to us are not taxed at all....The only way that we can even come close to leveling that playing field is to eliminate manufacturing taxes. So eliminate all taxes on Americans who will stay in the United States and make products and hire American workers."

A similar approach has been advocated by trade skeptic Patrick Buchanan. Globalization was also mentioned by Mike Huckabee, who argued against outsourcing:

"The most important thing a president needs to do is to make it clear that we're not going to continue to see jobs shipped overseas, jobs that are lost by American workers, many in their 50s who for 20 and 30 years have worked to make a company rich and then watch as a CEO takes a hundred-million-dollar bonus to jettison those American jobs somewhere else. And the worker not only loses his job, but he loses his pension. That's criminal. It's wrong. And if Republicans don't stop it, we don't deserve to win in 2008."

I quickly checked Huckabee's site but found nothing on how he was going to stop American companies from outsourcing or his economic rationale for doing so. But such a move would mean the GOP would be turning its back on a history of free-trade advocacy. So the only two guys who really seemed to dig into economic policy were on the more protectionist or economic nationalist side of the spectrum.

But that isn't very Reaganesque, really. It was the Reagan administration, after all, that launched the Uruguay Round of multilateral trade negotiations in 1986 that lowered global tariffs and created the World Trade Organization. It also won approval of the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement in 1988. As trade expert Daniel Griswold of the libertarian Cato Institute has noted, "Like most postwar presidents, Reagan championed free trade while selectively deviating from it."