Americans continue to list the economy -- in all of its manifestations -- as the top problem facing the country today. One might think that the recent prime-time Republican debate would have been a forum with a strong focus on exactly how the candidates -- if elected as president -- would approach this top issue. But one would be disappointed. Discounting generalities and bromides and references to what has been done in the past, the debate yielded few specific proposals about the economy. And most of these proposals focused on one issue -- taxes.
The topics covered in the debate were controlled by the moderators, so much of what was talked about was out of the hands of the candidates. The moderators began the debate asking candidates about running as third-party candidates, electability in the general election, dynastic politics, comments about women, past experience, abortion and then into foreign policy and ISIS. Later in the debate, moderator Chris Wallace pointed out that "…more than 3,000 people sent us questions about the economy and jobs on Facebook," and the moderators did steer the conversation to the economy. But what we learned about what the candidates would do about the economy was fairly meager.
There was the usual rhetoric from candidates about their past successes in economic realms (Jeb Bush and John Kasich reflecting on their time as governor, respectively), some very grand and broad statements about needing to fix the economy ("We can grow economically") and an occasional statement about balancing the budget. But in terms of specifics, the candidates talked about taxes and about government regulation. And that was about it.
MIKE HUCKABEE: "…we can get rid of the Internal Revenue Service if we would pass the fair tax, which is a tax on consumption rather than a tax on people's income, and move power back where the founders believed it should have been all along."
BEN CARSON: "And that's why I've advocated a proportional tax system. You make $10 billion, you pay a billion. You make $10, you pay one. And everybody gets treated the same way. And you get rid of the deductions, you get rid of all the loopholes, and…"
JEB BUSH: "…you fix a convoluted tax code."
MARCO RUBIO: "The first thing we need to do is we need to even out the tax code for small businesses so that we lower their tax rate to 25%, just as we need to lower it for all businesses."
SCOTT WALKER: "…lower the tax rate and reform the tax code."
SCOTT WALKER: "…rein in all the out-of-control regulations…"
MARCO RUBIO: "We need to have a regulatory budget in America that limits the amount of regulations on our economy." And, "And last but not least, we need to repeal Dodd-Frank. It is eviscerating small businesses and small banks."
JEB BUSH: "You get in and you change every aspect of regulations that are job killers. You get rid of Obamacare and replace it with something that doesn't suppress wages and kill jobs."
How do these proposals play with the American people? To answer that question, we can match the proposals up against our economic proposals database:
1. The general idea of reforming the tax code plays fairly well with Americans. Forty-two percent say that "simplifying the federal tax code" would be very effective in improving the economy. This is the 17th-highest down a list of 47 economic proposals Gallup recently tested.
2. The idea of lowering the tax rate gets fairly good ratings from Americans, with 44% saying that "providing tax cuts for lower- and middle-income families" would be very effective in improving the economy (13th on the list), and with 40% rating "reducing income tax rates for all Americans" as very effective. However, only 26% agree that "reducing the capital gains tax rate" would be very effective.
3. Lowering taxes on small businesses is not seen by Americans as being that effective in improving the economy. Only 24% of Americans say that "reducing corporate tax rates for businesses" would be very effective, although more specifically, 36% say that "eliminating capital gains taxes for small businesses" would be very effective.
4. Cutting back on regulations on small businesses gets an above-average rating: 40% say "reducing government regulations on small businesses" would be very effective.
Some candidates did talk about reforming Social Security, which is indirectly related to the economy. We know that the general concept of "reforming Social Security to ensure it remains solvent" is among the top 10 economic proposals tested in the Gallup database, in terms of its perceived effectiveness.
Taxes and regulations are staples for conservatives and Republicans and also may have been what the candidates talked about because they are two things that the government directly controls. There is much more that a president can do to influence the economy and to create jobs, of course, and the candidates, to their credit, do talk about those things on the stump and in their campaign platforms and position statements. But viewers wanting to find out more about how the candidates would attack the economy by watching the debate certainly were not exposed to a full and comprehensive understanding of all that might be done.