For an event that was supposed to focus on economics, Tuesday's debate among the eight leading Republican presidential candidates offered maddeningly little clarity about this crucial question: How do they plan to slash taxes without causing the federal deficit to skyrocket? That's because the candidates were all but silent on the government's biggest budgetary challenge, which is the growing cost of healthcare entitlements. And what little they did say didn't add up.
Debates aren't great places to analyze dueling five-point plans, especially when so many candidates are vying for camera time. Yet they provide a rare opportunity to highlight the differences among similar-sounding positions. Sadly, most of the pols onstage Tuesday weren't eager to get down in the weeds; instead, they often told viewers to go to their websites if they wanted details.
One exception was Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a budget wonk who called on the moderators to dig more deeply into the big, European-style consumption taxes that Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas were advocating. There was no such exploration, however. In fact, Paul and Cruz didn't even mention that their proposed business "flat taxes" weren't income taxes, but rather a form of sales tax that would be passed along directly to the companies' customers. And although the moderators tried to get several of the candidates to reveal what government services and benefits they'd reduce to offset the cost of their tax cuts, only Cruz complied by saying he'd eliminate five major federal agencies — all of which perform some essential functions that even Republicans support. In a moment reminiscent of former Texas Gov. Rick Perry's "oops" gaffe from the last campaign, though, Cruz could name only four of the five.
The uncomfortable reality is that the federal budget is on an unsustainable path, and it's not because federal agencies are growing like kudzu. Discretionary nondefense spending hasn't grown at all in recent years, and defense spending has grown only modestly. The problem over the coming decades is the rising cost of healthcare, especially for the growing number of seniors. Only one candidate acknowledged this — Kasich, again — but he didn't say how he planned to slam the brakes on doctor bills and hospital costs in Medicare and Medicaid. And when Cruz was asked about cutting benefits to retirees, he touted a plan to let younger workers shift some of their Social Security contributions into private retirement investments — a shift that defeats the purpose of providing guaranteed income for seniors in the future, while draining the system of money needed to pay for current retirees' benefits.
Admittedly, the Republicans are making no secret of the fact that they all want to cut taxes and shrink government. But the details matter, because they reveal how serious the plans are — or aren't — about achieving their stated goals without burying Washington even more deeply in debt. And unless they have a real plan for reining in entitlements over the long term, they're not serious.