While the commentariat and pollsters may argue about who “won” Wednesday’s GOP debate in Arizona, let’s look more broadly down the road about how this Republican primary season will shape the general election.
1. It won’t be “just the economy” in 2012
One clear conclusion from this debate: This election won’t be fought only over the economy. While we all expected 2012 to be a referendum on President Barack Obama’s stewardship of the economy, the GOP candidates are ensuring that foreign policy and social issues will be front and center as well.
With the notable exception of Ron Paul, the Republicans on Wednesday were vociferous in their attacks on President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, with a particular focus on Iran. Mitt Romney went so far as to say that if we re-elect Obama, Iran definitely will develop a nuclear bomb, whereas if we elect Romney, he just as assuredly will prevent a nuclear Iran. Rick Santorum seemed to be channeling George W. Bush as he talked at length about the need to go to war with Iran if neccessary.
All of the candidates boldly claimed that Obama’s foreign policy record has been a disaster. This might play well to the most partisan Republicans but will go nowhere with general election voters. Obama has presided over the elimination of Osama bin Laden and the decimation of al-Qaida leadership by unmanned drones. Those two points alone should secure his “tough on terrorism” credentials for the general election. But the saber-rattling on Iran coming from the GOP assures us that foreign policy will not necessarily take a back seat to the economy this year.
Just when we thought the culture wars would be buried in a sea of bad economic news, social issues — namely birth control and abortion — have come front-and-center in this election. This happened for three reasons:
- The economy is starting to show signs of real improvement.
- The Obama administration made the controversial decision to force religious institutions to include contraception in their insurance plans.
- Rick Santorum has gotten unexpected oxygen. His views on social issues are on the extreme right of his party, and they have made for great headlines and debate fodder.
While we did not learn anything new from the candidates on these issues in tonight’s debate, the fact that they spent a significant amount of time talking about them and revisiting Obama’s policy positions gives the Democrats material to work with and voters something to think about.
2. Because of Item 1, the GOP candidates missed an opportunity to discuss real economic policy
What the candidates chose not to talk about was as interesting as what they did discuss. Obama released the broad details of his plan to for corporate tax reform Wednesday: lowering rates and eliminating some deductions. While we do not know all of the details, of course, the outline falls within the general ideas suggested by the Bowles-Simpson commission.
The GOP candidates did not take the opportunity to discuss this new policy proposal from Obama at all. Perhaps their staff could not prepare a set of talking points in time for the debate, or maybe they realized they did not have much to say to distinguish themselves from Obama: All agree that corporate rates should be lower — and apparently, so does the president.
In almost all of the previous debates, the candidates have fallen all over themselves to make clear that they would repeal the Dodd-Frank legislation that attempts to reform the financial system. The Economist has an excellent review this week of what a morass of red tape and uncertainty the bill has created. I thought for sure one of the candidates would reference this series of articles and again repeat calls for repeal. Unless I missed it, I did not hear the term “Dodd-Frank” at all.
I cannot think of any reason they passed on these two opportunities except that they ran out of time. After all, planning another preemptive war in the Middle East and fighting with the Catholic Church does keep you busy.
The opinions contained in this column are solely those of the writer.
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