Republican candidates ensuring Democratic president in 2008

In Tuesday’s Republican presidential panel presentation — to call it a debate is to do serious injustice to a respectable format — on business and economics, most of the candidates reverted to tried-and-true Republican tropes.

Almost all of them say they are for low taxes, “reasonable” regulation and reduced government spending.

After experiencing six years watching Republicans go on a spending-and-regulation spree once they had control of both the White House and Congress, however, it’s difficult to grant any of them much credibility.

All right, President Bush and the Republicans did cut marginal tax rates at the beginning of the term, and that’s undoubtedly one of the reasons we still have a reasonably healthy economy despite problems in the housing market and other warning signs.

And although a few Republicans besides Ron Paul are rediscovering their limited-government roots, what may be a lasting legacy of the spendthrift Bush administration is increasing confusion about the proper role of government — especially among Republicans who used to have a fairly good idea about where those limits were.

For example, when Mitt Romney was asked whether it was the government’s job to “do something” about foreclosures, he said it was “everybody’s job,” including the government’s of course. He thinks government price supports for farmers are essential.

Rep. Duncan Hunter thinks it’s the president’s job to tell China how to value its currency.

Gov. Mike Huckabee thinks it’s a “luxury” to go to Congress first to authorize military action against a country that hasn’t attacked us.
Both Huckabee and Fred Thompson think our crisis is such that ethanol and other energy subsidies are needed for now and delude themselves that they can be temporary.

Mayor Rudy Giuliani likens the goal of energy independence to putting a man on the moon — if the government has the will and the resources, we can get it done.

To be sure, Sen. John McCain talked about the long-term need to reform entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, and Rep. Tom Tancredo was more eloquent on the issue. Rep. Paul offered a thumbnail sketch on monetary policy and made a case for not debasing the currency. Giuliani, Thompson, Brownback and even Romney were firm on the need not to raise taxes.

But there was considerable confusion on free trade. You would think it would be simple. No two people make a trade unless each one thinks he will be better off as a result. So how can the result of millions of win-win transactions (even allowing for the fact that people can sometimes miscalculate their own best interest) be a negative?

Yet Hunter and Tancredo were downright suspicious of free trade. Romney was vague and tried to split the difference between “free” and “fair.” Thompson started out equivocal but migrated to a more free-trade position.

Nobody but Paul questioned the rationale for the Iraq war, the single most unpopular Republican initiative of this decade.

To the horse-race aspects: Romney looked the best and didn’t sound bad. McCain, after some rough months, seems to function better as an underdog than a front-runner. Thompson was acceptable but not exciting. Giuliani was reasonably impressive. Paul wasn’t asked enough questions — a function of a questioner-centered format that we find quite unsatisfactory. The others didn’t break out.

Ready for President Hillary?