By Jonathan Bernstein
A big takeaway from Wednesday night's debate should have been how far removed the Republican candidates are from the national mainstream in several policy areas. But between the horse-race analysis and the choices by the moderators, it was easy to miss what some of the debaters were saying.
I don't want to pick on the CNBC crew too much: We can't expect them to do too much on the fly. Nevertheless, they pressed the candidates hard on personal "gotcha" subjects, while leaving some astonishing claims on real issues to go completely unchallenged.
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For example, Carl Quintanilla asked Marco Rubio three follow-up questions about missing votes in the Senate, but no one pressed Ted Cruz about what his support for a gold standard means exactly.
So I've put together a few questions that should not have been difficult for a well-prepared candidate to answer. Of course, in real life, skilled politicians know how to evade tough queries, and attacking the moderators is a popular pose. I'm not saying everything would have been different if these questions had been included, only that the moderators didn't let viewers know that some statements the Republicans made needed more explanation.
Ben Carson, on his tax plan: "You also have to get rid of all the deductions and all the loopholes."
Follow-up: You would eliminate charitable deductions? Mortgage-interest deduction? Child tax credits?
Carly Fiorina, on how long the tax code should be: "That's right, three pages."
Follow-up: Three pages isn't really enough just for tax rates, but suppose we grant you that. So you would eliminate charitable deductions? The mortgage-interest deduction? Child tax credits?
Fiorina: "Government causes a problem, and then government steps in to solve the problem ... Big and powerful use big and powerful government to their advantage. It's why you see Walgreens buying Rite Aid. It's why you see the pharmaceuticals getting together. It's (what) you see (with) the health insurance companies getting together. It's why you see the banks consolidating."
Follow-up: Is your position that mergers and other corporate consolidations are a problem created by government? If government had no involvement in the economy, do you believe we would have nothing but small business? If you think consolidation is bad, should antitrust law be tougher — or is antitrust law the root of the problem?
Ted Cruz: "If you look at a single mom buying groceries, she sees hamburger prices have gone up nearly 40 percent. She sees her cost of electricity going up. She sees her health insurance going up. And loose money is one of the major problems. We need sound money. And I think the Fed should get out of the business of trying to juice our economy and simply be focused on sound money and monetary stability, ideally tied to gold."
Follow-up: So you believe that because of the Fed's mandate to fight both unemployment and inflation, the economy has been too strong and inflation too high?
Fiorina: "I think it's wonderful that businesses start a 401(k). The point I'm making is this, the federal government should not be in a lot of things. There is no constitutional role for the federal government in setting up — retirement plans."
Follow-up: Do you believe that 401(k) plans, which you would eliminate in your three-page tax code anyway, are unconstitutional? Is Social Security unconstitutional?
Fiorina: "There is no constitutional role for the federal government to be setting minimum wages ... "
Follow-up: The minimum wage is unconstitutional?
Bush, responding to a question about student loans: "We don't need the federal government to be involved in this at all."
Follow-up: So the federal government should end all student aid — loans, grants, all of it?
Christie: "Carl, are we really talking about getting government involved in fantasy football? We have — wait a second, we have $19 trillion in debt. We have people out of work. We have ISIS and al-Qaida attacking us. And we're talking about fantasy football? Can we stop? How about this? How about we get the government to do what they're supposed to be doing, secure our borders, protect our people, and support American values and American families. Enough on fantasy football. Let people play, who cares?"
Follow-up: Governor, should the federal government repeal all laws and regulations concerning gambling, or is fantasy football a special case?
Christie, on climate change: Well, there is no evidence that they can fix anything in Washington, D.C.
Follow-up: Do you believe the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act were flops? Why?
Reach Jonathan Bernstein at email@example.com.