Principles vs. Pragmatism: a review of the 4th GOP debate

The Washington Post calls it “Rigid Conservatism vs. a flexible pragmatism.” I call it Principle vs. Pragmatism. Either way, the fourth GOP debate brought out some clear differences that should help people decide which if any of the candidates they can support.

Governance requires a balance of principle and pragmatism, or for those who don’t know what pragmatism means, practicality. Here’s an example from the debate. Ted Cruz wants to eliminate the IRS and move to a flat tax where everyone pays the same rate after a $36,000 minimum. That’s a principled view, but is it practical? The answer is no. We need some agency to process tax returns. We can reduce the size of the IRS dramatically if we simplify the tax code, but we can’t eliminate it entirely unless we move to an honor system where we trust people to be one hundred percent honest about their earnings.

All of the GOP candidates operate from some core principles. The question is how much room do they have for the practical? Libertarians in general discount practical considerations. Therefore, when they apply their principle of smaller government, they end up throwing the baby out with the bath. Example? Defense. Libertarians tend to be isolationists–those who don’t want to see the U.S. “interfere” in messy conflicts like what’s going on in Syria. The problem is if we’re not involved, those with bad intentions get free rein, and the price of interfering later may be a lot higher than if we had gotten in sooner. That indeed is the case with the Obama administration’s failure to act three or four years ago.

An exchange between Marco Rubio and Rand Paul exemplifies what I’m talking about. Paul’s Libertarian principles tell him to back off on interventions and he can site examples where we got our fingers burned when we stepped in without knowing what we were getting into. The Iraq war is a good example, but that doesn’t mean we were wrong to intervene. It just means don’t act without very good intelligence and have clear objectives when you do intervene.

Rubio was right in my opinion on defense spending. We need to be equipped to engage our enemies if and when they threaten our interests. ISIS is a threat. We need a plan and the ability to execute that plan to stop them. That doesn’t mean we don’t need to subject the military budget to the same principle that Carly Fiorina advocates––zero based budgeting. That means instead of taking last year’s budget as the base and decided whether or not to add to it, we start with zero and decide what amount if any goes to each line item. Is it practical? Someone ought to challenge her in the next debate on that very point.

Rubio was also right on the tax code. Senator Paul objected to Rubio’s child exemption because it is an entitlement. Hello America, guess what? The tax code is not only a means of raising the monies necessary to operate our government, but it also has social policy implications whether we like it or not. Let’s use the flat tax to flush out that concept. Assume we impose a 10 percent flat tax as Senator Cruz favors. If we don’t take into account family size, our tax system would be a disincentive to have children. Why? A couple earning $60,000 a year with no children would pay the same as a couple with five children. The same is true if we eliminate the home mortgage and charitable deductions. To do so would militate against home ownership and charitable giving. I was glad to see the Rand Paul recognizes that fact and breaks with his Libertarian comrades on that issue at least in terms of the mortgage and charity deductions.

When a candidate tells you the principle he’s basing his policies on, as Rubio does when he explains why his tax code would be pro-family, we can decide if we agree, but what do we do if the candidate doesn’t fully articulate the principles upon which his policies will be based, or if he shows a lack of understanding of the issues such that he can’t articulate what practical considerations would have to be taken into account. To me that’s the problem with Ben Carson. Not only don’t I know how he arrives at a position, but his answers make me doubt he understands the practical elements involved. The danger of a Carson presidency is that his advisors might also lack the knowledge of the institutions, laws, and policies affecting an issue. That would make him ineffective in trying to change things for the better. They might, for example, ignore the law of unintended consequences. People who lack knowledge and experience in dealing with the tax code, the Federal Reserve, or the federal bureaucracy in general might try to implement changes that make matters worse, creating chaos and confusion when what is needed is clarity, order, and simplicity.

Donald Trump exemplifies a different problem. He says things are bad, and I think most Americans agree with him to some extent, but then he says trust me, I’ll fix things. Again, I want to know the principles upon which his policies emanate. You can’t just be a pragmatist, using “common sense” to fix things because what your common sense tells you on one issue may be different on a different issue. Common sense says we need to simplify the tax code, but you need a set of principles that tells you how to simplify it.

Which candidates best exemplify an understanding of the need to balance principle with practicality? In my opinion the two best are Carly Fiorina and Marco Rubio. What puts them ahead of Kasich and Bush is their ability to articulate that understanding by telling us what principles they are operating under and how they’d tackle the practical side of the matter. Rubio did that on taxes, Fiorina on handling Putin and on our runaway government.

Ted Cruz and Rand Paul are too much of ideologues in my humble opinion. Their attempts to implement their principles would flounder on such practical matters as convincing Congress to go along. Kasich and Bush might run a good ship but neither has what it takes to win the nomination. Kasich seems too anxious, Bush isn’t sure he wants to get down and dirty if that’s what it takes.

Rubio and Fiorina tied as winners last night. They represent the GOP’s best shot at winning in November 2016 because they are principled, but understand you have to have a plan that recognizes you’re not a dictator and need to work in the system to put your principles into policies that work.

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