Throughout the entire GOP presidential debate Tuesday night in Dearborn, Mich., I was waiting to hear two things. First, whether any of the candidates would be able to connect with the 64 percent of voters—according to the latest Gallup Poll—who think the economy is lousy, because of annoyance about high gas prices, angst about globalization and outsourcing, or worries that their home is dropping in value. And with the housing market likely to stay weak throughout much of next year and unemployment slowly ticking up, it really seems unlikely that by November 2008 that poll number is going to flip dramatically to the positive.
Here is what I got from the front-runners: "We're enjoying 22 quarters of successive economic growth" (Fred Thompson). "The market is a wonderful thing" (Rudy Giuliani). "Wealth creates wealth" (John McCain).
I really doubt that any of those answers would help the Republican candidates score well with middle-class voters on that classic polling question, "Does the candidate care about people like you?" Interestingly, Mitt Romney has a tax plan targeted directly at the middle class—making all their investment gains tax free—but chose not to mention it.
Second, I watched to see who would be the Hillary Clinton in the group, who would be the policy-wonk candidate with a five-point plan for every problem. Romney probably came the closest, with this answer about healthcare:
So my plan gets everybody in America insured, takes the burden of free riders off of our auto companies and everybody else, and says let's get everybody in the system. And to do that, we say, look, we're going to have states create their own plans. We did it in our state, and it's working. We're not going to have the federal government tell them how to do it. Number two, we're not going to spend more money. Hillary Clinton's plan costs $110 billion. Mine says, let's use the money we're already spending a little more wisely. And number three, instead of having the federal government give you government insurance, Medicare and federal employee insurance, let's have private insurance.
Our solutions as Republicans have to be able to deal with the big issue of our time economically for the American family, and that's healthcare. Get the cost of healthcare down. Get everybody insured, but not in a government takeover, but by using the dynamics that have always made our other markets so successful. And one more thing, and that is, our healthcare system right now really penalizes individuals that might want to buy their own insurance, as opposed to buying it through their company. And that's why I propose that people should be able to get their insurance individually, and it should be—and get the same tax treatment as to whether the company buys it for them, or they buy it for themse[lves]. And all medical expenses would be tax deductible.
Yet for the most part, the Republicans spoke in generalities, bemoaning rising healthcare costs but not telling what they would do about them. Too much wonkishness can be tiresome, granted, but recall how people used to be so impressed with Bill Clinton's laundry-list State of the Union speech in which he listed initiative after initiative. The Democratic presidential debates—and websites—are full of that sort of stuff.
Republicans probably could use a little bit more wonkery. Of course, it would help if they were asked more specific questions by the moderators on healthcare and education, instead of the usual bits on immigration and abortion.