How will candidates grow the economy?

With the possible exception of Bernie Sanders, who has argued that economic growth should take a back seat to redistributing wealth from the top one-percent, one thing it seems every candidate for president – Republican and Democrat – agrees on is the need to significantly boost economic growth. While it is easy to agree on the goal, it is much tougher to produce a policy platform to actually achieve the objective.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that between now and 2040 the U.S. economy will grow an average of just 2.2 percent a year. That is significantly below the 3.1 percent average rate of growth of the past few decades.

Tune in to CNBC's "Squawk Box" on Thursday at 7am. Eric Cantor will be a guest, talking about the GOP debate.

Eric Cantor
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Eric Cantor

On a personal level, slower growth means smaller increases in the standard of living and a direct challenge to the notion that each new generation will be substantially better off than the last.

For the nation, slower growth means larger budget deficits. For example, just one-tenth of a point decrease in annual economic growth (2.3 percent versus 2.2 percent, for example) increases the federal budget deficit by $326 billion over ten years.

Much of the reduction in anticipated future economic growth is attributable to demographics. Where as the baby boom and the widespread entry of women into the workforce fueled robust economic growth after World War II, in the future, an aging population will be supported by a shrinking workforce.

In the face of these demographic headwinds, the contributions to the nation's economic growth from the capital stock (machinery, buildings, infrastructure, etc.) and productivity become all that more important. And that requires a comprehensive growth agenda.

We need tax reform that encourages investment, but we also need an education system that adequately prepares every student for the demands of the modern economy.

We need greater investments in infrastructure, but we also need to remove the red tape that makes project approval so lengthy and cumbersome.

We need fiscal restraint, but we also need to recognize that not all spending is created equal and that under investment by the government in basic research and development is reducing the potential for future economic growth.

A growing economy also depends on the proper functioning of the more operational aspects of government.

The abuse of the patent system by so-called patent trolls diverts resources away from innovation and growth and towards litigation. Our inability to effectively thwart cyber-attacks creates enormous losses for businesses and consumers alike. The cumbersome process for the approval of medical devices and drugs increases costs and delays the introduction of life extending treatments. Expanding broadband deployment, making it easier for startups to raise capital, the list goes on and on.

Unfortunately, Washington's paralysis appears to extend to even these operational items. And that is the challenge confronting the next president. Creating the conditions for robust economic growth requires more than pushing for one or two marque items. It requires both the commitment and ability to make greater economic growth a priority in every agency and program of government.

Political pundits have struggled to explain the dynamics of the current presidential election. Perhaps the best explanation is one of the oldest: when it comes to picking a president, voters are influenced by their view of the economy; rewarding incumbents and their party for strong economic performance and punishing them for lackluster growth. The only difference is today, voters do not trust either party any more.

And therein lies the great challenge for those who want to be president: demonstrating to the American people that they have the vision and ability to create the kind of economic growth the American people have come to expect.

Commentary by Eric Cantor, the former House majority leader, who served as the U.S. representative for Virginia's 7th congressional district from 2001 to 2014. He is currently vice chairman and managing director at Moelis and Co. Follow him on Twitter @EricCantor.