Republicans sparred over taxes and the minimum wage in the second presidential debate Wednesday night, with Donald Trump an unlikely advocate for progressive taxation. But the brief exchanges at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. underscored more than anything how the improving economy is giving the GOP little real ammunition against Democrats.
In the undercard debate for lower-polling candidates, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum made an impassioned case for raising the minimum wage. "Most of (American workers) are wage earners," Santorum said, "and Republicans are losing elections because we're not talking about them."
Sen. Rand Paul and Dr. Ben Carson both embraced the idea of a flat tax, in which everyone pays the same percentage of their income. Carson said making richer people pay a higher rate, as our system has always done, is “socialism.”
But Trump, the Republican front-runner in the polls, said a flat tax wouldn’t make the super-rich pay as much as they should. He said he planned to soon announce a tax plan that would involve a major reduction for the middle class.
“The hedge fund guys wont like me as much as they like me right now,” Trump, a real-estate mogul and entertainer, added. “They’ll pay more. But I know people that are making a tremendous amount of money and paying virtually no taxes, and I think its unfair.”
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, meanwhile, said he’d scrap all taxes on production, and instead institute a consumption tax, which he called a “fair tax.”
“Why should we penalize productivity?” Huckabee asked.
In his concluding remarks, Bush painted a bleak economic picture, noting that the poverty rate has grown under President Obama and middle class income has declined. He called for a “strategy of high-sustained economic growth,” citing his pledge to grow the economy at a rate of 4% per year. He said he’d do that by reforming the tax code, fixing the “broken regulatory system,” reducing the deficit and passing immigration reform.
“Without a high growth strategy, our country will never have the resources or the optimism to be able to lead the world,” Bush said.
Earlier this week, Bush announced a tax "reform" plan that would raise some taxes on hedge fund managers, but, analysts said, would give the majority of its benefits to the rich.
Taxes aside, Carson and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker clashed briefly over the minimum wage. Carson, a former neurosurgeon who is running directly behind Trump in most polls, said he’d like to see negotiations to establish a “reasonable” minimum, and index it to inflation “so we never have to have this conversation again in the history of the world.”
“The best way to help people see their wages go up is to get them the education and skills they need to take on careers that pay far more than the minimum wage,” he said, laying out a menu of tax cuts, education and training and energy development.
Walker, who this week unveiled a plan to curb the already waning power of organized labor, added that he intended to repeal Obamacare—a subject that was barely raised by the candidates throughout the evening.
Trump and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie both said it would be a good thing if some wealthier Americans didn't receive Social Security payments, with Trump, a billionaire, volunteering to take a pass.
"The fact is there are some people that truly don’t need it, and some people who need it very badly," Trump said.
Christie warned that the program is at risk of going bankrupt if payments aren't reduced—though in fact experts say that's a long way off.
"We need to save this program for the good people out there who have paid into this system and need it," Christie said. "Hillary Clinton is gonna want to put more money into a system that has already lied to us and stolen from us."
But there was little sense of a clear and sustained critique of the Obama economy. That’s likely because unemployment has dropped to its lowest level in seven years, the economy is growing at a steady pace and the number of Americans without health insurance has plummeted lately.
To be sure, wage growth continues to stagnate, and millions of Americans are stuck in jobs that don’t pay enough to get by. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio glanced at the problem when he lamented the “millions of people in this country living paycheck to paycheck." But, with the exception of Carson’s tentative suggestion to raise the minimum wage, the Republicans on the stage had few ideas to address those problems.
Elsewhere, several candidates sought to tout their records of economic management. Ohio Gov. John Kasich bragged of balancing the budget and cutting taxes in both Washington, where he served as a congressman in the 1980s and '90s, and in Columbus.
“I’ve done it in both places,” Kasich said.
Carly Fiorina, who was fired as chief executive of Hewlett Packard, defended her record by saying she had doubled the size of the company and saved 80,000 jobs.