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GOP debate: Candidates missed a big opportunity

Last night was billed as a chance for Americans to hear the GOP presidential candidates debate their economic policies. What we got, in between jabs at the media, the Democratic candidates, and each other, was a series of incoherent sound bites. Candidates lauded flat taxes and a radically shrunken tax code, and excoriated "big government" at every turn – but without any clear articulation of how these fragmentary ideas would create shared prosperity or growth. Their proposals did not seriously address stagnant wage growth, the decimation of the middle class or ways to reverse the concentration of wealth at the top.

This was a big missed opportunity. Certainly, the candidates were trying to distinguish themselves and play to their own base voters. References to middle-class struggles did show that candidates are aware of the deep suffering and anxiety caused by wage stagnation and unemployment/underemployment. However, much of what we heard made vague reference to the now-discredited set of policies driven by supply-side economics: shrink government, cut taxes. The not-so-secret truth is that Republican voters want something different than what the candidates are proposing; they want deep structural changes that rewrite the rules of the economy and provide economic security for the middle class.

CNBC GOP Debate
David A. Grogan | CNBC

In our Rewriting the Rules report, authored by our Chief Economist and Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, the Roosevelt Institute makes clear that inequality is a choice, that our economy is governed by a set of rules that determine economic winners and losers, and that the wealthy and corporations have used their power to write the rules in their favor. We argue for a comprehensive set of reforms: deep structural reforms of our financial and corporate markets, our tax code, our labor policies, and the investments we make in our communities and families to rebalance our economy and strengthen the middle class. We didn't hear such policy prescriptions during the debate.

Recent polling conducted by the Roosevelt Institute and Democracy Corps confirms what we laid out in our report: that all Americans, including Republicans, are deeply anxious about the direction of our economy. After three decades of stagnant wage growth, voters overwhelmingly reject trickle-down economics and believe these policies have hurt the economy. They want real reforms, not small tweaks. Republican candidates should take a look at the results and see what the public wants before the next debate:

  • 88 percent of all voters, including 78 percent of all Republicans, want to see massive public investment in infrastructure—roads, bridges and schools— which would create good jobs in the process.
  • 83 percent of all voters, including 67 percent of all Republicans, want paid family leave so parents can care for children and sick loved ones without fear of losing their jobs.
  • 77 percent of all voters, including 62 percent of all Republicans, want to see laws around CEO pay changed so that more corporate profits go to research and development, capital equipment, and worker training rather than inflated stock prices that primarily benefit corporate executives.

Republicans and Democrats don't just favor individual policies that are seen as more progressive. The public also understands and embraces a progressive economic story about what works for the American economy and what doesn't.

Our poll showed reforming the financial system is most likely to motivate voters to care about the 2016 election—because people understand that what happens on Wall Street will affect their take-home pay. Yet not one candidate talked about any real financial reform last night.

We often hear about how divided Americans are. And of course there are differences between Republicans and Democrats on the issues. But what is striking is just how unified across party lines the public is on economic issues ranging from the basics of wages to the structure of the financial system.

This election provides a huge opportunity for presidential candidates of both parties to actually speak to the concerns of voters, but based on last night, I have little hope that any GOP candidates will actually step up and take that opportunity.

Commentary by Felicia Wong, president & CEO of the Roosevelt Institute. Follow her on twitter at @FeliciaWongRI.