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What Republicans Talk About When They Want to Talk About the Economy

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Mitt Romney really wants to talk about the economy. Or at least he wants to talk about talking about the economy. Quizzed during the June 13 Republican presidential debate by CNN's John King about gays serving in the military, Romney answered with chagrin. "We ought to be talking about the economy and jobs," he replied, only condescending to answer "given the fact you're insistent."

Yet when asked what would happen if Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling, Romney dodged with a question of his own, this one rhetorical: "Well, what happens if we continue to spend time and time again, year and year again more money than we take in?" Presuming that the correct answer is that the country may eventually default, we have all witnessed a stroke of debating genius: an infinite feedback loop of obfuscation and evasion capable of sustaining itself for an eternity.

Any substantive discussion of economic concerns during the debate at Saint Anselm College was most conspicuous through its absence. Though the first question of the night focused on private sector job growth, few answers delved beyond the need for tax cuts. Asked for proof that lowering tax rates will boost employment, Tim Pawlenty shot back by labeling President Obama a "declinist." Newt Gingrich, when presented with the results of a recent Boston Globe survey showing that a majority of New Hampshire Republicans support tax increases on the wealthy, cited the "Reagan Recovery" as a counterpoint. As Slate's Dave Weigel points out, this recovery occurred "after a tax cut followed by years of tax increases, including FICA tax increases."

The most audacious financial policy duck of the night clearly belonged to Michele Bachmann. Asked about legislation she sponsored to repeal Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform, the congresswoman instead announced her filing of paperwork making her candidacy official. Distracted, King shifted the conversation to Ron Paul, a predictable prelude to bringing the discussion to a close. As for Bachmann, she never did get back to the topic of how she would regulate the financial industry.

With Pawlenty refusing to take the opportunity offered to raise his recent criticisms of Romney, the first major debate of the election cycle was more an exercise in wheel-spinning than anything else. King's "This or That" questions to candidates -- concerning whether they favored Jay Leno or Conan O'Brien, spicy or mild hot wings, Elvis or Johnny Cash, or American Idol or Dancing With the Stars -- did nothing to combat the perception that everyone on stage was seeking little more than to run down the clock.

There is no requirement, however, that presidential debates -- even the early contests -- conform to such a shallow model. It is possible to conduct forums that produce substantial discussions. Dedicating entire or extended segments of debates on particular topics, as occurred in 2008, has proven a useful tool for forcing more pointed discussions. Debates sponsored by single-issue interest groups -- in 2008, Democratic candidates sparred in forums provided by the AFL-CIO and LGBT advocates -- can yield similarly focused contests.

Unfortunately -- consequently? -- almost all scheduled GOP debates are fully sponsored by media organizations. Of those that have other sponsors, only one debate, a July 10 meeting in Las Vegas co-sponsored by Americans for Tax Reform, seems likely to focus on a particular topic, albeit one that would not seem to force any candidates out of their comfort zones. As circumstances stand now, the time and placed of the extended conversation on the economy and jobs all candidates claim to crave is still to be decided. No need to worry, though. Mitt Romney is sure to have loads to say about how much he wishes to eventually have that discussion.