Scholars on the GOP debate: Middle-class struggles to take center stage as Rubio walks tightrope
Republican presidential candidates debated a range of economic issues in their third debate, from what to do about Medicare and Social Security to tax policy and even a brief exchange on daily fantasy sports. The moderators became part of the scrum, and Hillary Clinton and her fellow Democrats took a few bashes, as GOP contenders strove to stand out. Here’s an instant analysis from three scholars.
Candidates and media spar, but Americans get their moment
Thomas Kochan, MIT Sloan School of Management
We were promised a debate over economic issues, but what we got for the first hour was protracted sparring between TV interviewers posing gotcha questions hoping to egg on candidates to attack each other and candidates turning the tables by blaming the nation’s problems on a left-leaning media. That was a sorry performance from people on both sides of the microphone.
Yet once they got beyond that part of the circus, the candidates did start to recite some of the big economic problems of the day, including the 30 years of wage stagnation; the growing number of women in poverty; the high cost of education; and the financial challenges facing medicare and social security.
A few ideas for reform came through on a couple of these issues. At least four candidates – John Kasich, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie – suggested social security and medicare could be stabilized through some combination of raising the ages of eligibility, reducing benefits for high-income earners and retirees, and adjusting benefit formulas for younger workers. Kasich was the most focused on concrete ideas when he proposed using public service to pay down student debt and the expansion of online courses and better links between high school, two-year, and four-year colleges to bring down the cost of higher education.
These Republicans and their Democratic counterparts recognize they have to focus on the issues holding back working families from realizing their dreams. Senator Rubio said it most clearly: if we don’t address these issues directly, the next generation is destined to have a lower standard of living than their parents.
So the good news in tonight’s debate, indeed in this campaign, is that the American public is being heard.
Candidates are getting the message that the next president has to focus like a laser on these economic issues. The question is can we go beyond the personal attacks the media feeds on and insist on getting more thoughtful answers to the problems Americans care about. Perhaps it’s time for the media professionals to catch up with the candidates and start listening to what average Americans want to hear.
Issues ignored: housing and inequality
Mechele Dickerson, University of Texas at Austin
Other than the fact that they attacked the moderators more than they attacked each other, perhaps the biggest surprise during the third Republican presidential debate may be that quite a few of them now seem to see that they cannot keep ignoring the middle class.
Mike Huckabee, John Kasich, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul didn’t attack the Top 1% or hedge fund managers with the fervor Bernie Sanders exhibited during the Democratic debate, and Carly Fiorina and Marco Rubio didn’t explain what they would do to solve the problem of stagnant middle-class wages or close the income inequality gap. But they did at least mention the economic woes facing the middle class.
Unfortunately, only one candidate (Paul) even mentioned the housing crisis and it was in the context of attacking Federal Reserve policies. None of the Republican or Democratic candidates seem to understand the link between rising rents and housing unaffordability. Housing unaffordability keeps getting worse, and it won’t improve until we recognize the link between it and income inequality.
This issue, of course, isn’t a problem for hedge fund managers or other highly-paid workers who have consistently received raises over the last 30 years. They are not facing a housing affordability crisis. In contrast, as both Republican and Democratic candidates mentioned during their debates, wages have all but stagnated for lower- and middle-income workers. These workers simply can’t afford their rents. And the problem is most pronounced in cities like Memphis and Detroit, where incomes have not kept pace with even modestly rising rents, according to a recent analysis.
The crisis is due to get much worse. More Americans are being forced to rent because they cannot afford to buy a home. At the same time, the share of renters spending more than half of their income on housing may soon reach almost one in three.
The income inequality gap and rising housing unaffordability are interrelated and solving them must be one of the top priorities of the next president. Unfortunately, you would not know that we are still facing a housing unaffordability crisis by listening to the presidential debates.
Marco Rubio walks a tight rope
Lisa García Bedolla, University of California at Berkeley
Much of presidential campaigning is about symbolism.
In tonight’s debate, Marco Rubio set himself up as the candidate who is about the future and achieving the American Dream. To do this, he had to walk a fine line, emphasizing his youth and his immigrant story, while trying to ensure Republican voters don’t see him as inexperienced and “other.”
In comparison with the other Republican candidates on the stage tonight, Marco Rubio’s relative youth is striking. Rubio’s age was the basis for criticism from Donald Trump earlier in the campaign.
Instead of trying to present himself as seasoned and experienced, Rubio emphasized the urgency of the moment and his hopefulness for the future. By saying he didn’t want to “wait his turn” to run, he implied that what he lacked in experience he made up for in enthusiasm and optimism. Consistent with that message, he refrained from attacking his opponents while still ably defending himself from a direct attack from Jeb Bush.
Similarly, Rubio made a point of presenting himself as an “everyman,” emphasizing his humble origins, his need to pay his way through school, and his awareness of what it means to struggle to support a family. He also referred to his parents’ migration story, connecting that to his support for and belief in the American Dream.
Rubio is running for the nomination of a party that has strong negative feelings towards immigrants in general and Latino immigrants in particular. He is attempting to emphasize his working class roots while espousing economic policies that mainly benefit the wealthiest Americans. And he needs to do both those things while appearing authentic and presidential.
It is telling that his weakest moment in the debate was when the moderator pointed out the contradiction between who benefits from his tax plan and his rhetorical focus on people “living paycheck to paycheck.” The exchange made evident the fundamentally contradictory message he is attempting to package and sell to Republican voters.
Unlike in previous debates, Rubio mentioned his parents’ migration but not where they came from, de-emphasizing his Cuban roots.
With bombastic “outsider” candidates Donald Trump and Ben Carson currently leading the Republican field, it will be interesting to see if Rubio’s youth and migration story allow him to distance himself from Washington or if the contradictions inherent in his message, his story, and immigrants’ relationship to Republican primary voters end up being too much for him to overcome with hope and a smile.
By Thomas Kochan, Professor of Management, MIT Sloan School of Management; Lisa Garcia Bedolla, Chancellor’s Professor of Education and Political Science, University of California, Berkeley, and Mechele Dickerson, Professor of Law, University of Texas at Austin