Let’s say you’re a top-tier presidential candidate, and you want to steal the best ideas from the lower-tier candidates to buttress your own position and siphon away what support they have on the issues. You want to make sure you steal the best ideas from the also-rans, not the dumb ones. Here’s my picks:
1. Hijacking Herman: Herman Cain is wrong about two very important questions: Who the Republican nominee is going to be in 2012, and who the next president is going to be. “Herman Cain” is not the answer to either question. He’s also way too optimistic about our growth prospects, which has led him to inadequately think out some of the big economic questions. But here’s what he is 100 percent right about: Uncertainty is an investment killer and the bane of capital. When Cain calls for massive tax cuts, he always ends his pitch with: “. . . and make the rates permanent!” I suspect that the question of whether the top income-tax rate is 35 percent (the George W. Bush model) or 38.6 percent (the Barack Obama model) matters a good deal less than whether tax rates and rules are stable over the long run. This is even more true, I suspect, of capital-gains tax rates and business-tax rates. Citizen Cain has called this one. Give him credit — and run with it.
2. Mugging McCotter: Last weekend in Iowa I had a chance to ask McCotter what he thinks we ought to do about the banks. He gave the most persuasive answer of any politician I’ve asked so far: Force them to capitalize for real, enforce stronger leverage limits and capital requirements, get rid of taxpayer support for the GSEs, etc. Michele Bachmann likes to talk about repealing Frank-Dodd, and Newt Gingrich talks about repealing Sarbanes-Oxley. That’s all great, but repealing legislation alone does not get everything done we need to get done. We’re still dangerously out on a limb with our financial system, and a second financial crisis would be another excuse to expand Leviathan and deepen the state’s reach into the economy. Real reform can preempt this, and McCotter is on the right track. And stealing from McCotter is easy: Nobody knows who he is, anyway.
3. Nicking from Newt: Newt Gingrich, the first politician whose career I really cared about, now makes me shake my head. Lean Six Sigma? Grants for Alzheimer’s research? Egad. But ask Newt about congressional procedure and he’s a lion. Newt’s finest moment in Iowa was his call for pre-empting the deficit-reduction supercommittee, calling the House back into session right now, forcing every subcommittee to come up with spending cuts, and sending the Senate, and Obama, critical economic-reform legislation. John Boehner should be listening, and so should Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, and Michele Bachmann. Newt’s got so many ideas that he won’t notice if one goes missing.
4. Raiding Rick: When asked what’s keeping the economy back, Republicans most often answer “taxes.” Rick Santorum emphasizes regulation, and he’s right to do so: Regulatory compliance costs American businesses more than they pay in corporate taxes every year, and most of those regulations do questionable good when they’re not doing active harm. Regulatory reform gives the economy many of the same benefits as tax cuts without putting additional pressure on the Treasury. Putting it at the top of the agenda is a win-win from a candidate who won’t-won’t.
5. Hustling Huntsman: Remember free trade? Huntsman does, and for the right reasons: “It has allowed the average family to save in terms of what they pay for goods, products that would otherwise carry a higher cost.” A new free-trade agenda is worth keeping in mind, even if Huntsman’s campaign isn’t.
6. Robbing Paul to Pay Everybody: Ron Paul is obsessed with the Fed, monetary policy, and national-security spending. The world is bigger than that — but, you know what? The Fed is an occasional menace, our monetary policy is a mess, and we spend a ton of money on national-security enterprises that don’t necessarily make the nation more secure. While it is dangerous to get Congress involved with the Fed’s business — Congress would almost certainly make an even worse hash of things than Bernanke & Co. — narrowing the Fed’s discretion to engage in freelance monetary shenanigans while radically expanding its balance sheet may be an idea whose time has come. Competitive devaluation of the dollar is no kind of long-term strategy, and a Republican presidential nominee ought to point that out. And Libya has finally given at least a few Republicans a war that doesn’t seem like a AAA investment — perhaps that could be the starting point for a longer conversation about our military footprint. Just don’t start that conversation with a true-believing Ron Paul guy lugging around a copy of Man, Economy, and State if you want to get the ball rolling in this decade.
So, that’s what I’d steal. And here’s some unsolicited advice for the top three:
1. Michele Bachmann needs to stop saying that we can turn the economy around in one quarter. If ever she gets the chance to test out that theory, she’s going to look stupid 90 days later. Rebuilding our economy is going to be a decade-long, or decades-long, project. Optimism is not a policy, and conservatives’ first duty is to reality.
2. Rick Perry needs to talk about crony capitalism. Economic-development subsidies of the sort that Texas (and every other state) offers at best distort markets and at worst lead to graft. You don’t have to be a Ron Paul purist to see that there’s an important difference between being pro-business and being pro-these-businesses.
3. Mitt Romney: I really wish he’d quit saying things like: “I’m afraid the president is just out of his depth when it comes to understanding how the private economy works.” So is Romney. Being successful in one line of business doesn’t mean you understand how other businesses work. Indeed, the private economy is so complex that nobody actually understands how it works — not businessmen, and certainly not politicians. That’s why businesses sometimes fail and why economic policies don’t produce the desired results. The president isn’t the CEO of America Inc., and Romney can’t manage a national economy the way he managed Bain Capital.
— Kevin D. Williamson is a deputy managing editor of National Review and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism, published by Regnery. You can buy an autographed copy through National Review Online here.