In seven hours of Republican presidential debates, one moment, one anguished remark, stood out for its clarity and unmistakable logic. That it came from a candidate with no chance of winning illustrates better than anything else the party's predicament.
Nearly all the candidates had taken the chance to tout his or her plan to slash federal taxes dramatically, which seems to be the one issue — notwithstanding gay marriage, immigration and cutting Medicare and Medicaid — that unites all the radical right, which will control the early Iowa caucuses and Southern primaries.
"I want to tell you," said John Kasich, the Ohio governor and former congressman, "my great concern is that we are on the verge, perhaps, of picking someone who cannot do the job. I've watched people say that we should dismantle Medicare and Medicaid and leave senior citizens out in the cold. I've heard them talk about deporting 10 or 11 million people from this country, splitting families. I've heard about tax schemes that don't add up, that put our kids in a deeper hole than they are now."
"You know," Kasich said, "these plans would put us trillions and trillions of dollars in debt." He said of the tax plans, "This stuff is fantasy."
He didn't explain the party's dilemma, perhaps hoping he didn't have to. The popular narrative is that President Obama and the Democrats have run up a $19 trillion national debt and his party is entertaining a bunch of people who would make it far worse.
Put aside for now the fact that the narrative itself is false. Budget deficits have been coming down since the record $1.4 trillion scored by George W. Bush's last budget. The 2015 deficit of $439 billion, as a share of GDP, is below the average of the past 40 years. Still, an objective of both parties ought to be to end deficits as the normal course.
All the candidates except possibly Kasich and Gov. Chris Christie — their plans are even vaguer than the others — and Mike Huckabee have promised drastic reductions in federal taxes, always to the primary benefit of high-income individuals and corporations. Huckabee is different because he still stands behind his 2008 promise to adopt the 20-year-old "Fair Tax" scheme, which would replace all federal taxes with a single sales tax on every transaction at a rate high enough to approximate the receipts of all current taxes. That would be a sales tax of somewhere between 30 and 40 percent on groceries, gas and everything else.
The bureaucratic scourge that would have to enforce the sales tax against tax evaders would make the IRS look like Mother Teresa. Huckabee likes to say that prostitutes and pimps and everyone else in the underground economy would collect the tax from their customers and remit it every month. Tax evasion would wreck state revenue systems like Arkansas's that rely on sales taxes.
But the others either proclaim, against all the evidence, that their giant tax cuts would stimulate so much business growth that fresh tax receipts would offset the rate reductions or else they just ignore the deficit question. They assume voters out there will not make the connection between tax cuts and deficits and the national debt or, if they do, they will not care.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who proposes the biggest tax cut, may be in the latter group but he at least does not claim that his plan — a flat 10 percent income tax on all individuals and corporations after the first exempt $36,000 of income — would actually balance the budget. A disciple of Dick Cheney on foreign affairs, Cruz may share his economic theories as well. When Cheney advocated a second round of tax cuts for the investor class and some among George Bush's advisers protested that deficits already were exploding, Cheney famously rejoined, "Deficits don't matter."
Cruz's plan would add from $1 trillion to $3 trillion to the deficit, depending on what he would do with deductions and credits.
Donald Trump first sounded like a populist, promising to end the carried-interest loophole and make hedge-fund managers and the like pay taxes at the same rate as ordinary taxpayers, but then he explained that he would cut other rates and eliminate estate taxes, which are collected on only two-tenths of the richest estates — like his. Ending the carried-interest loophole would pick up $2.5 billion a year for the treasury while killing the estate tax would cost it $20 billion.
Ben Carson would collect 10 percent of everyone's income but end all deductions, credits and writeoffs, which tax analysts say would produce huge deficits while greatly increasing the burden on the middle class. It would be a bonanza for the rich and corporations. He would cure the deficit problem by phasing out Medicare. You can count Carson out. Huckabee figured out that you can't endanger Medicare or Social Security and expect to win, even among Republicans, although Cruz believes it can be done if you privatize them starting with middle-aged people. Most of us oldsters don't realize that it would destabilize the system for current retirees.
Rand Paul would end all payroll taxes on workers, shifting the burden of Medicare and Social Security to general revenues. But if you phase them out, it cures the deficit problem entirely.
Carly Fiorina just says vaguely that she would cut taxes in some way and shrink the tax code from 75,000 pages to only three, which apparently would end all middle-class deductions like mortgage interest, charities and child care.
Sen. Marco Rubio's big tax cut, which would lower the top rate from 39.6 percent to 35 percent and simplify the code, would give some relief to the poor but still give the greatest aid to the very rich. The conservative Tax Foundation calculated that it would add $6 trillion to the national debt over 10 years.
But, see, deficits don't matter unless a Democrat is in the White House. And John Kasich will soon prove to be a prophet without honor in his own party.