Update on 2016 presidential race

Hillary Clinton has an apparent lock on the Democratic nomination. Judging from what was said in the first Democratic candidates debate, her platform will be a far cry from SAFE’s smaller, more focused, less costly government agenda.

On the other side, the outlook is murkier. Ten GOP candidates participated in the third debate (plus four in the undercard event), and their positions on the issues vary considerably. Some key issues were glossed over, and it remains to be seen who the Republican nominee will be.

DEMOCRATS – The first debate for Democratic presidential candidates took place in Las Vegas, Nevada on October 13 (transcript).

Moderator Anderson Cooper kicked things off by announcing the candidates as they walked in – Former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee, Former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and former Senator Jim Webb of Virginia. Hmm, only one current office holder in the lot, and Senator Sanders is 74 years old.

Although the event was called a debate, there wasn’t much disagreement. All of the candidates but Webb (a conservative Democrat) seemed to see government action as the answer to every problem discussed.

The economy is in a mess, with subpar economic growth and rising income inequality. More support is needed for social programs, e.g., family leave policies, healthcare benefit enhancements, making college more affordable, a higher minimum wage, and expanded Social Security benefits for struggling retirees. Also, more should be done (no details provided) to help small and middle-sized businesses.

Manmade global warming is one of this country’s (and the world’s) biggest long-term challenges; it’s time to phase out fossil fuel energy. Trade deals like the TransPacific Partnership undercut pay for American workers and should therefore be rejected (this was the only notable deviation from current administration policy that came up).

There was no discussion (the moderators didn’t invite it) of whether policies of the current administration (over the past 7 years) have caused economic problems. What are the implications of chronic deficit spending and soaring government debt? What effect would contemplated tax increases (see below) have on the economy?

•Clinton - And then we have to figure out how we're going to make the tax system a fairer one. Right now, the wealthy pay too little and the middle class pays too much. So I have specific recommendations about how we're going to close those loopholes, make it clear that the wealthy will have to pay their fair share, and have a series of tax cuts for middle-class families. *** I know we can afford it [paid leave, healthcare benefits], because we're going to make the wealthy pay for it. That is the way to get it done.

•Sanders - The way to enhance Social Security benefits for lower income seniors is by lifting the cap on taxable incomes so that you do away with the absurdity of a millionaire paying the same amount into the system as somebody making $118,000. You do that, Social Security is solvent until 2061 and you can expand benefits. *** Well, let me tell you, Donald Trump and his billionaire friends under my policies are going to pay a hell of a lot more in taxes today -- taxes in the future than they're paying today.

Senator Sanders considers himself a democratic socialist, and Clinton described herself as “a progressive who likes to get things done.” The inference was that she is somewhat to the right of Sanders, and therefore more in tune with the general public.

I know how to find common ground, and I know how to stand my ground, and I have proved that in every position that I've had, even dealing with Republicans who never had a good word to say about me, honestly. But we found ways to work together on everything from reforming foster care and adoption to the Children's Health Insurance Program, which insures 8 million kids. So I have a long history of getting things done, rooted in the same values I've always had.

Other observers seem disposed to accept Clinton as a political moderate. Centrist warning on “populist” risks; Third Way Democrats opposed a “Socialist” drift, Nicole Gaudiano, News Journal,

The Third Way name is linked to former President Bill Clinton’s governing philosophy, and a co-founder named Mark Bennett is quoted that the Third Way report is aimed at longer term concerns about a primary process that could push eventual nominees too far to the left. “We don’t think it’s happened to Secretary Clinton but it’s always a danger and that’s part of the warning.”

If Ms. Clinton is further right in her thinking than Senator Sanders, however, no particulars were cited. To us the distinction seems more rhetorical than real.

By most accounts, Clinton handily “won” the debate. That doesn’t mean she had all the answers, but simply that she kept her composure, avoided mistakes, and seemed to be in charge. Hillary finds footing as Sanders falls flat, Ariel Cohen, Washington Examiner,

Vice President Biden subsequently decided not to enter the race and announced his decision in the Rose Garden, flanked by his wife and the president. It was generally expected that most of Biden’s supporters would gravitate to Clinton rather than Sanders. Joe Biden won’t run for president, Ariel Cohen, Washington Examiner,

Finally, on October 22, Clinton weathered a full-day grilling about Benghazi by a House select committee chaired by Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC). Benghazi bust, Byron York, Washington Examiner,

Republicans presented some new information. One leading Democrat had a tantrum and started a fight with Gowdy. And some Republicans got tangled up in side issues that didn't tell the public much about the core issues at stake in Benghazi. The result was a marathon hearing that didn't accomplish much.

Another Democratic debate is scheduled on November 14, and several more after that, but they figure to be a snooze. Unless the moderators go after Clinton (which would be surprising), there isn’t much left to talk about. Twitter, CBS News team up for second #DemDebate, Kelly Cohen, Washington Examiner,

REPUBLICANS – The third GOP presidential candidates debate took place in Boulder, Colorado on October 28 (transcript). It was shorter (2 hours vs. 2.5 hours) than the Democratic debate, but considerably more dramatic.

Ten candidates were vying for opportunities to make their case, a younger and more diverse group than their Democratic counterparts. Already standing at their podiums when the broadcast began, they were introduced from left to right: Ohio Governor John Kasich - former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee -former Florida Governor Jeb Bush - Senator Marco Rubio - businessman Donald Trump - retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson - former H-P CEO Carly Fiorina - Senator Ted Cruz - Governor Chris Christie - Senator Rand Paul.

From the outset, the CNBC moderators (Carl Quintanilla, Becky Quick & John Harwood) seemed to be gunning for the candidates – not in terms of pressing them on substance, although there was some of that, so much as attempting to belittle them and trip them up.

In lieu of being permitted to make opening statements, for example, each candidate was asked to respond to this question: “What is your biggest weakness and what are you doing to address it?”

None of the candidates wanted to answer such a question, of course, and they used various strategies for not doing so. Talk about something else – offer a humorous non-answer – or describe personal characteristics that would sound like strengths.

Many of the ensuing questions were loaded too, and an interesting dynamic developed. The candidates began to express appreciation for each other and push back against the moderators. Cruz contributed an epic takedown, which he began by protesting questions that had been directed at other candidates.

You know, let me say something at the outset. The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media. This is not a cage match. And, you look at the questions — “Donald Trump, are you a comic-book villain?” “Ben Carson, can you do math?” “John Kasich, will you insult two people over here?” “Marco Rubio, why don’t you resign?” “Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen?” How about talking about the substantive issues the people care about?

Others got their licks in too, notably Trump, Rubio, Huckabee and Christie, and they were applauded for doing so by the live audience. CNBC moderators, press crushed by the Boulder debate, Eddie Scarry, Washington Examiner,

The CNBC moderators took a drubbing from their fellow journalists afterwards for overreaching and being ill prepared. Trump right on 2-hour debate win on CNBC, Bill Hoffman, Newsmax.com,

•Donald Trump called out CNBC for being unfair and wrong during the third Republican presidential debate Wednesday night — and various media reports suggest the billionaire developer is totally right, with even The New York Times, stating, "If there was one clear loser, it was CNBC."

•"The first question was just absolutely embarrassing," [Joe] Scarborough said on his MSNBC show "Morning Joe," referring to Harwood asking Trump if his quest for the White House was a "comic book" campaign.

• The Weekly Standard: "The CNBC panelists seemed oblivious to how they came across and how eager they appeared to embarrass the candidates, often on trivial matters. Marco Rubio's cashing in a small retirement fund and paying a fine for doing so — that was their idea of an important issue.”

•Politico: The CNBC-moderated debate became a debate about CNBC, as various candidates and the audience turned the tables on the network's three moderators. *** By the end of the first hour, the audience seemed to be siding with the candidates, booing when CNBC's Carl Quintanilla seemed to play gotcha with Ben Carson about his past work for a questionable company. Taking on the media is a time-honored tradition in Republican debates, from Ronald Reagan in 1980 to Newt Gingrich in 2012. But those were generally individual outbursts. On Wednesday night, the tension was palpable throughout the encounter and across the stage . . .

A cheering thought occurs to us. While only one of these talented individuals can win the Republican nomination for president, others could wind up being considered for vice president or cabinet positions, continuing to serve in Congress, etc. If they are learning to work together now, that could set the stage for constructive collaboration later.

Over and above the erratic performance of the moderators, the candidates had only one minute to answer questions and 30 seconds to respond if others mentioned them by name (same ground rules as in the other debates). There was also no assurance that they would be called on in the first place (ten candidates plus the moderators, two hours including commercial breaks, do the math).

Nevertheless, some interesting points were made about the candidates’ positions – based both on what the candidates said and what they didn’t say. For example:

TAXES: Over half of the candidates have published tax plans, which typically involve lower rates (the traditional Republican idea for helping the middle class) and partially offsetting reductions in tax preferences. There was no talk about raising taxes on anyone. The moderators, and also Kasich, suggested that the tax plans proposed by Trump and Carson would irresponsibly increase government deficits.

•Trump – “Larry Kudlow is an example, who I have a lot of respect for, who loves my tax plan. We’re reducing taxes to 15 percent. We’re bringing corporate taxes down, bringing money back in, corporate inversions. We have $2.5 trillion outside of the United States which we want to bring back in.”

•Carson – Is proposing a flat tax plan with about a 15% rate. “You also have to get rid of all the deductions and all the loopholes. You also have to [make] some [strategic spending cuts] in several places.”

•Cruz – Under his tax plan, a family of four would pay nothing (not even payroll taxes, which would be eliminated) on the first $36,000. Income above that level would be taxed at a flat 10% rate. Individual tax returns could be the size of a postcard, “so we can eliminate the IRS.” For businesses there would be a flat tax of 16 percent, which would apply universally from “giant corporations that with lobbyists right now are not paying taxes” to small business.

•Fiorina – For all the talk about tax reform over the years, no one has gotten the job done and the tax code has grown to 73,000 pages. The solution is to elect a president who knows how to get things done. She envisions cutting the tax code to three pages because that’s all the average American can readily comprehend.

•Bush - Simplifying the code and lowering rates, both for corporations and — and personal rates, is exactly what we need to do. You think about the regulatory cost and the tax cost — that’s why small businesses are closing, rather than being formed in our country right now. His plan would give “the middle class the greatest break: $2,000 per family. And if you make $40,000 a year, a family of four, you don’t pay any income tax at all.

•Rubio – His tax plan would be pro-family because, among other things, it would increase the per child tax credit. The benefits of his plan would be proportionally higher for lower income taxpayers. As for business taxes, “no business, big or small, will pay more than 25 percent flat rate on their business income. That is a dramatic tax decrease for hard-working people who run their own businesses.”

•Paul - If you just cut income tax, there isn’t much tax to cut for people in the lower echelons. My plan would also cut the payroll tax, and I think it would spread the tax cut across all socioeconomic levels and “be something that would be broadly supported by the public in an election.”

SPENDING: In contrast to the Democratic debate, there were no calls for new or expanded government programs – not even for restoring military spending. Some of the candidates advocated greater spending discipline, albeit offering essentially no specifics as to where cuts should be made, and sought to establish their credibility in various ways.

Two candidates with executive experience pointed to their fiscal records, which they would propose to build on as president.

•Kasich – When I was in Washington [during the Clinton era], I fought to get the budget balanced. I was the architect. It was the first time we did it since man walked on the moon. We cut taxes and we had a $5 trillion projected surplus when I left. [It takes] hard work. Fiscal discipline, know what you’re doing. Creativity. He enjoyed similar success after being elected governor of Ohio in 2008.

•Bush – His record as governor of Florida “was one of cutting taxes each and every year. You don’t have to guess about it, because I actually have a record. $19 billion of tax cuts, 1.3 million jobs created.” But he also cut spending, and as a result “we were one of two states to go to [an] AAA bond rating, and our government spending was far less than the spending in people’s income.”

Two outsider candidates suggested there was a target rich environment for spending cuts and regulatory reform in which anyone who seriously wanted to could make great progress and spark an economic boom.

•Carson – Remember, we have 645 federal agencies and sub-agencies. Anybody who tells me that we need every penny and every one of those is in a fantasy world. So, also, we can stimulate the economy. That’s going to be the real growth engine. Stimulating the economy — because it’s tethered down right now with so many regulations. At another point: the average annual cost of regulations for a small manufacturer (less than 50 employees) is $34,000 per employee, so “we’re going to have to have a major reduction in the regulatory influence that is going on. The government is not supposed to be in every part of our lives, and that is what is causing the problem.”

•Fiorina – Here is how socialism starts. Government causes a problem, and then government steps in to solve the problem. Big government favors the big, the powerful, the wealthy and the well connected, and crushes the small and the powerless. [That’s] why we have to reduce the size and power of government. She advocates zero-based budgeting, “so we know where every dime of your money is being spent instead of only talking about how much more we’re going to spend year after year after year.”

Two youthful senators blasted the two-year budget deal that had been announced the day before by outgoing House Speaker John Boehner as a sellout.

•Cruz - This deal in Washington is an example of why Washington’s broken. Republican leadership joined with every single Democrat, adding $80 [billion] to our debt to do nothing to fix the problems.

•Paul - When you look at raising the debt limit, it should be leverage to try to reform government. Instead we raised the military spending, took from entitlements, and raised domestic spending and the deficit will explode. This is the unholy alliance that people need to know about between right and left. Right and left are spending us into oblivion.

ENTITLEMENTS: A range of opinions was expressed re senior benefit programs, which represent a large and relentlessly growing portion of the overall budget.

One position is that millions of people have paid for Social Security and Medicare, the credit balances in the trust funds represent their payments being spent for other purposes, and the government shouldn’t short change them now.

Huckabee - This is not entitlement, it’s not welfare. This is money that people have confiscated out of their paychecks. Every time they got a paycheck, the government reached in and took something out of it before they ever saw it. As for projected funding shortfalls, why not invest in finding cures for Alzheimer’s, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Eradicate those diseases and you fix Medicare and you’ve fixed America, its economy and you’ve made people’s lives a heck of a lot better.

But perhaps it’s time to stop lulling people into a false sense of security and tell them the truth – because changes are necessarily going to be made.

Christie - We’re sitting up here talking about all these other things, but 71 percent of federal spending today is on entitlements, and debt service. And, that’s with zero percent interest rates. Now, I’m the only person that’s put out a detailed plan on how to deal with entitlements. And we’ll save a trillion dollars over the next 10 years.

Carson – The retired neurosurgeon would give Medicare participants a choice. They could stick with traditional Medicare or opt for a healthcare savings account that would use the same resources in an arguably more constructive way. The annual Medicare budget is over $600 billion. And there are 48 million people involved — 40 million, 65 and over, and 8 million other. Divide that out. That comes out to $12,500 for each one. Now, I can tell you there are a lot of private-sector things that you could do with $12,500, which will get you a lot more than you get from this government program.

Other candidates draw a distinction between older participants in Social Security and Medicare, who should not be abandoned, and younger Americans who have time to make adjustments.

Cruz – I’m 44 years old. It is hard to find someone in my generation that thinks Social Security will be there for us. We can save and preserve and strengthen Social Security by making no changes for seniors, but for younger workers gradually increasing the retirement age, changing the rate of growth so that it matches inflation, and critically allowing younger workers to keep a portion of our tax payments in a personal account that we own, we control them, we can pass on to our kids.

Rubio – Everyone up here tonight that’s talking about reforms, I think and I know for myself I speak to this, we’re all talking about reforms for future generations. Nothing has to change for current beneficiaries. My mother is on Medicare and Social Security. I’m against anything that’s bad for my mother. So, we’re talking about — we’re talking about reform for people like me and people like Senator Cruz, as he talked about earlier, who are years away from retirement that have a way to plan for these changes [in a] way that’s very reasonable.

HEALTHCARE: Considering all the talk about repealing GovCare, there were only a few stray comments about need-based healthcare programs. Have the candidates grown resigned to GovCare, or are they still pondering what to propose as a replacement?

•Huckabee would favor a coordinated attack on four deadly diseases, as already mentioned. "We don’t have a healthcare problem crisis in America, but we [do] have a health crisis."

•Kasich notes that the annual growth rate of Medicaid expenditures in Ohio has been cut from 10% to 2.5% since he became governor, supposedly “without taking one person off the rolls or cutting one single benefit.”

•Cruz recalls that “when millions of Americans rose up against Obamacare, I was proud to lead that [2013] fight.”

GLOBAL WARMING: Only one candidate mentioned global warming (aka climate change), perhaps because he was asked a question about it. No one called for a halt to EPA regulations like the Clean Power Plan, which is being challenged in the courts by more than half the states, nor mentioned the international conference in Paris that will begin at the end of November with the objective of entering into a “binding agreement” that would be handily defeated if presented to Congress for approval.

Christie reportedly believes there is a warming trend and human activity is a contributing factor, but he doesn’t favor a “cost is no object” response led by the federal government. We need to make sure that we do everything across all kinds of energy: natural gas, oil, absolutely. But also where it’s affordable, solar, wind in Iowa has become very affordable and it makes sense. That is the way we deal with global warming, climate change, or any of those problems, not through government intervention, not through government taxes, and for God’s sake, don’t send Washington another dime until they stop wasting the money we’re already sending there.

The consensus was that Rubio “won” the Republican debate, and that Cruz and Christie also did well. The outsider candidates (Trump, Carson & Fiorina) were seen as losing a bit of their luster, and Bush had a bad night.

The next GOP debate is coming up next week (November 10); it will be on Fox Business News (Neil Cavuto, Maria Bartiromo et al.). Stay tuned!
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