In his closing statement at this week’s Republican presidential debate (transcript here), Ben Carson gave no policy specifics but instead painted a picture of America in deep crisis: “In the two hours of this debate, five people have died from drug-related deaths, $100 million has been added to our national debt, 200 babies have been killed by abortionists, and two veterans have taken their lives out of despair.”
I don’t want to treat suicide lightly, especially given that it seems to be a major cause of the rising death rate among white Americans with less than a college education (the new demographic backbone of the Republican Party). But the four Republican debates so far could have plunged anyone into despair, as the candidates have unceasingly talked about the hellish landscape left by the Obama administration—and the even bleaker future that awaits if Hillary Clinton becomes president and kills the tax cuts that can save us all.
Marco Rubio, while hardly rising to the breeziness associated with Ronald Reagan, has stood out in the debates by denouncing the Democrats without going overboard in apocalyptic descriptions of present-day America. This tactic makes him seem more electable than most of his rivals, as the small number of voters torn between the two parties are not as likely as stalwart Republicans to see government as a kind of gangrene on the verge of destroying America for good. This week Rand Paul tried to expose Mr. Rubio as a phony conservative, and it’s true that Mr. Rubio is supplanting his obligatory call for lowering top tax rates with a kind of stimulus spending by the government in the form of higher defense spending and a $2,500 child tax credit—which would likely be spent, rather than saved, by its recipients.
Mr. Paul objected that a “welfare transfer payment” is “not very conservative,” but Mr. Rubio tried to reach beyond Republican primary voters with his answer: “Here’s what I don’t understand. If you invest that money in a piece of equipment, if you invest that money in a business, you get to write it off your taxes. But if you invest it in your children, in the future of America and strengthening your family, we’re not going to recognize that in our tax code?”
Mr. Paul’s chances of being the GOP nominee probably evaporated when he started talking about racial disparities in our criminal-justice system, but his view of government as an always-destructive force makes him part of the consensus among the Republican candidates, and one of the biggest obstacles to a Rubio nomination may be the suspicion that he doesn’t think the country is being “crushed” by government, to use Carly Fiorina’s favorite word. (The other is that he won’t rule out a path to citizenship, or “amnesty” as Ted Cruz calls it, for undocumented migrants.)
Mr. Rubio did have his litany of problems in America, but he did not ascribe them all to Big Government and, indeed, suggest that the United States is not muscular enough in its foreign policy: “We have a society that stigmatizes those that hold cultural values that are traditional. We have a society where people, millions of people, are living paycheck to paycheck. …For the first time in 35 years, we have more businesses dying than starting, and around the world, every day brings news of a new humiliation for America, many the direct consequence of decisions made when Hillary Clinton was the secretary of state.”
Fiorina wins the dystopia debate
Of all eight candidates on stage, Carly Fiorina was the most focused. Despite claiming to be the strongest possible opponent against Hillary Clinton, she seemed to be auditioning for the role of running mate, someone who won’t go wobbly when the GOP presidential nominee has to tack a bit to the center. She denounced government (“Republican and Democrats alike”) for encouraging homeownership and thus creating a real estate bubble. Reversing the premise of a question about higher job growth under Democrats Bill Clinton and Barack Obama than under Republican George W. Bush, she said, “Yes, problems have gotten much worse under Democrats. But the truth is, this government has been growing bigger and bigger, more corrupt, less effective, crushing the engine of economic growth for a very long time.”
Ms. Fiorina came back several times to the image of government as a lumbering beast destroying everything in its path. She said, “innovation and entrepreneurship is crushed by the crushing load of a 73,000 page tax code. It is crushed by regulatory thicket that is so vast we don’t even know what's in it anymore.” Later: “Obamacare is crushing small businesses, it is not helping the families it was intended to help.” And: “Imagine a Clinton presidency…. The rich will get richer. The poor will get poorer. The middle class will continue to get crushed.”
Ben Carson attempted to answer a question about whether large banks should be broken up by saying, “we should have policies that don’t allow them to just enlarge themselves at the expense of smaller entities.” That out of the way, he pivoted to a more comfortable theme: “what we’ve done now is let the creep of regulation turn into a stampede of regulations, which is involved in every aspect of our lives.”
Donald Trump continued to be the personification of a TV commercial, describing some intractable problem and its awesome solution all within a few seconds: “We are a country that is being beaten on every front economically, militarily. There is nothing that we do now to win. We don’t win anymore. Our taxes are too high. I've come up with a tax plan that many, many people like very much. It’s going to be a tremendous plan. I think it’ll make our country and our economy very dynamic.” Similarly, he warned, “We have to stop illegal immigration. It’s hurting us economically. It’s hurting us from every standpoint.” A few seconds later: “We will have a wall. The wall will be built. The wall will be successful. And if you think walls don't work, all you have to do is ask Israel. The wall works, believe me.”
Jeb Bush was, once again, a low-key debater, forgotten whenever he wasn’t on screen. As for John Kasich, he seemed to be the favorite of viewers who would never vote Republican for president. He repeatedly bragged about his fiscal conservatism and record of balancing budgets, but he also said, “I’ll tell you about Wall Street: There’s too much greed.” And he cited Catholic author Michael Novak to argue, “free enterprise is great, profits are great, but there have to be some values that underlay it, and they need a good ethics lesson on Wall Street.” This was not a big applause line.
But even Kasich, considered Mr. Reasonable by many pundits, had to inject a little despair into his closing statement: “ladies and gentlemen, if Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders were to win this election, my 16-year-olds, I—I worry about what their life is going to be like.” Mr. Kasich was the only one heartily booed at the debate, though it’s not clear why. (It was either the implication that he would bail out “too big to fail” banks or his promise that he would somehow rescue “the hard-working folks who put those money in those institutions” as opposed to “people who can afford” losses.) If the Ohio governor had suggested that America will muddle through no matter what happens next November, he probably would have been pelted with rotten fruit.