Tuesday was the day of the economy globally and in American politics as well. Within a 24-hour period on Oct. 11:
- Current U.S. unemployment was announced as at 9.1 percent (and nearly twice as much, if you count those partially employed or who have stopped looking for work).
- Total federal debt was announced as reaching $14.8 trillion.
- European Union governments neared agreeement on a Greek bailout package, causing markets to rebound.
- President Barack Obama's jobs bill foundered in the U.S. Senate and probably now will be considered in several separate legislative pieces in both Senate and House.
- Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was endorsed for the Republican presidential nomination by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie shortly before emerging the winner in a nationally televised Bloomberg-Washington Post debate on economic issues at Dartmouth College.
The other developments were at least equal in importance to the Republican debate in New Hampshire, but the debate no doubt will get the greatest media attention because, along with the Christie endorsement, it cemented Romney's position as the clear frontrunner for the GOP nomination.
Business executive Herman Cain, who had risen to second place in Republican public-approval polls among the candidates, for the first time in the debates took some incoming fire and made a couple slips that hurt him. Cain challenged Romney to find fault with his 9-9-9 tax-reform plan and asked why Romney needed 57 points in his own economic plan. Romney responded that tax reform alone would not fix the economy and that his 57 points, in fact, were listed under 7 main subheadings covering other parts of economic policy.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum also jumped Cain, suggesting neither Congress nor public would accept Cain's regressive plan and explaining why. Cain got in further trouble, in answer to a moderator's question, by saying that former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan was the Fed chairman he had most admired over the past several decades. Rep. Ron Paul responded that "Greenspan was a disaster!"; that drew heavy applause from the audience. Cain stated that several well-known economists had contributed to his 9-9-9 plan but, when challenged, could name only one (who is little known). Cain emerged smiling and composed but tarnished.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who had performed badly in earlier debates, needed a strong showing Tuesday night to pull back into first-tier status. But he did badly again. He clearly was again unprepared. His main and only substantial economic proposal was to focus incentives on the energy sector (although he promised to issue more detailed economic proposals in the following days). In particular, Perry fared badly in one-on-one exchanges with Romney. Christie, sitting in the audience, was caught on camera casting an evil eye on Perry when he spoke. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Rep. Michele Bachmann, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman turned in their usual acceptable performances but, it was clear, knew they were in also-ran status and likely to remain there.
The debates, at this point, are the only thing keeping candidates other than Romney, Cain, and Perry in the running. They give regular national TV exposure to the secondary candidates, who otherwise could not finance on their own. The winnowing-out process will begin quickly in 2012, however, as real voters begin to cast ballots in early primary and caucus states and money must be spent on organizing and on media buys. By February, the field should be down to three or four. Unless he makes a major goof, Romney appears on his way to the nomination. (Christie, after a highly effective performance in his endorsement press conference with Romney, probably enhanced his chances for No. 2 on the ticket. Romney literally beamed as he spoke.)
With the Obama jobs plan foundering and delayed, the main ring is now occupied by the bipartisan congressional Gang of Twelve, co-chaired by Sen. Patty Murray, which is meeting regularly in secret — and with a remarkable lack of leaks — prior to making its recommendations for economic renewal and long-term deficit reduction by Thanksgiving. The few leaks emanating from the committee point to recommendations approximating those of the 2010 Obama deficit-reduction commission (Simpson-Bowles commission). That would be a positive outcome from an exercise for which many have held little hope.
Recommended reading: For readers particularly interested in knowledgeable economic-policy commentary, I recommend two current articles. One in the New Yorker, by John Cassidy, examines Keynesian economics and its application in the current situation. The other, in the current New York Review of Books, by Yale professor Bill Nordhaus, examines economic aspects of energy policy. Good stuff.