With the Ames Straw Poll behind us, the race for the Republican presidential nomination is starting to pick up speed. That means it is more important than ever that we know just where the candidates stand.
Unfortunately, we can expect much of the media attention over the coming weeks to be focused on the “horse race” aspects of the campaign. Will Perry or Bachmann become the conservative alternative to Romney? Is there a dark horse out there somewhere? Who will make the next gaffe?
The candidates are not likely to make things easier. If what we have seen so far is any indication, we can expect lots of Obama-bashing, promises to be the most conservative candidate in the race, and platitudes about American greatness.
So, with that in mind, here are a few questions I’d like to see them answer:
What three programs (at least) would you cut or eliminate? Every Republican candidate has called for balancing the federal budget. Every candidate is also, justifiably, opposed to raising taxes. Since the federal government will spend $1.1 trillion more this year than it takes in, that means spending will have to be cut. Of course, everyone is against “fraud, waste, and abuse.” But the last time I looked, there is no line item called “fraud, waste, and abuse” in the federal budget. Across-the-board spending cuts are another type of cop out. They preserve worthless or wasteful programs, albeit at lower levels, while cutting programs that are actually useful. Balancing the budget without raising taxes is going to require cutting specific programs, so tell us which ones you would cut. And promising to “go through the budget line by line” or the equivalent doesn’t count. Surely by now you have figured out some specific programs that you are willing to cut — even if it means offending that program’s supporters.
How would you reform entitlements? Answering the first question was actually the easy part. Domestic discretionary spending makes up less than 20 percent of the federal budget. If you eliminated it all — the Department of Education, the Department of Commerce, the FDA, the FBI — we would still be running a deficit. Ultimately, dealing with our deficit and debt requires dealing with entitlements, particularly Medicare and Social Security. But so far we’ve heard little more than vague generalities. Do you support Paul Ryan’s plan for Medicare reform? If not, what would you do? What about Social Security? Would you cut benefits? Should young workers be allowed to save a portion of their payroll taxes in personal accounts?
Are you a fair-weather federalist? Republicans have become fond of quoting the Tenth Amendment recently: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” But we’ve heard that before. President Bush was all for states rights until a state did something he didn’t like, such as legalize medical marijuana or physician-assisted suicide. What happens now if a state, say, chooses to permit gay marriage? Already former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum has attacked Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann and Texas governor Rick Perry for even hinting that states have that authority. And Bachmann and Perry have started to go wobbly on the issue.
Are there any limits to our military commitments? We are now fighting at least three wars, not counting drone attacks and covert actions. We have troops in more than 100 countries and are still guarding South Korea from North Korea and Germany from, well, something. Are all these military commitments still necessary? Under what circumstances would you commit U.S. troops to combat? It’s not enough to say you would protect U.S. vital interests. What are those vital interests? Promoting democracy? Human rights? Fighting every last terrorist in any country that they pop up in? Ensuring “stability” in every area of the globe?
What is the proper role of government? It’s not possible to think of every possible issue that may come up during your presidency. That’s why it’s so important to know your animating principles when it comes to government. Is it government’s role to “create jobs”? Should government enforce moral values? What things can only government do, and what should be left to civil society? Is there anything that you think is a good idea, but still shouldn’t be government policy?
— Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution.