(The Center Square) – Five Republican candidates trailing former President Donald Trump in the polls took to the debate stage to talk about foreign and domestic policy while trading barbs Wednesday in the third GOP debate.
Trump skipped the debate Wednesday in Miami as he did the first two debates. The candidates on the stage – former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina – had plenty to discuss without Trump.
Many of the questions focused on foreign policy, but some of the domestic questions touched on pocketbook issues affecting Americans across the country.
Haley said that rich people are getting richer while poor Americans are getting poorer. She said one of the first things she would do if elected would be to eliminate the federal gas and diesel taxes in America. The federal gas tax is 18.4 cents per gallon. She also promised to cut taxes on the middle class.
“We have to stop the spending binge that is happening by Republicans and Democrats in Congress,” Haley said.
The former ambassador also said she’d claw back unspent pandemic funds, eliminate the earmarks and veto any spending bill that doesn’t go back to pre-COVID-19 pandemic levels.
Haley said that projections show the federal government in the coming years will spend more on interest payments than on the defense budget.
“This is a crisis. This is a national security concern. If we don’t deal with what’s going to happen with that interest expense in a few years we’re going to look like Japan. And we can’t let that happen,” she said. “The strong dollar matters.”
Interest costs on the country’s $33 trillion debt increased 23% to $879 billion. That’s a record high. Interest costs accounted for 14% of total federal spending as of September 2023. The cost of maintaining that debt is expected to grow. The Congressional Budget Office released projections in June that showed interest costs would “exceed all mandatory spending other than that for the major health care programs and Social Security by 2027, all discretionary outlays by 2047, and all spending on Social Security by 2051.”
The candidates also weighed in on entitlement reforms, which have been a political third rail for both parties for years. The Center Square Voters’ Voice Poll, conducted with Noble Predictive Insights, found that 65% of registered voters would opt to cut federal spending to address the growing deficit. Some 14% would rather increase taxes than cut spending. The rest were either unsure or wanted to deal with the deficit in the future. But cuts to major spending categories are unpopular. Six percent of registered voters would cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. About 12% would cut health care spending other than Medicare and Medicaid, and 21% would cut spending on national defense and the military.
Christie called for a practical approach, including raising the retirement age for younger generations.
“We need to be realistic about this. There are only three things that go into determining if Social Security can be solvent or not: Retirement age, eligibility for the program in general and taxes. That’s it,” he said. “We are already overtaxed in this country, and we should not raise those taxes.”
Christie suggested wealthy people – he named Berkshire Hathaway Chairman Warren Buffett, who Forbes estimates is worth $117.5 billion – should pay into the Social Security system but not benefit from it. He said rich people should not be collecting Social Security checks. Christie said he’d negotiate a retirement age with Congress if elected but declined to say if he had a specific retirement age in mind.
Haley also called for entitlement reform and said any candidate not talking about such measures wasn’t being serious about programs expected to need major changes in the next decade to stay solvent. She also called for limited benefits for the wealthy and raising the retirement age for younger people. She also declined to give a specific retirement age.
Ramaswamy said the opportunity to fix entitlement programs is closing quickly.
“We’re working within the last window. I believe we will actually have to fix this problem while leaving Social Security and Medicare benefits for current seniors intact,” he said.
Ramaswamy said the U.S. needs to stop spending money on foreign wars. He said that the U.S. deficit would be $7 trillion less without the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also called for zero-based budgeting, a 75% reduction in federal employees, closing some redundant federal agencies, reducing regulations to improve the nation’s economy and reducing foreign aid to other countries.
Scott called for growing the economy, cutting spending, and cutting taxes. Scott said he would protect Social Security for his mother and everyone else receiving Social Security. He said he would not cut benefits.
“If we’re going to actually tame this tiger, the way you do it is not by picking on seniors who have paid into a program that deserve their money coming back out to them. The way you deal with it is No. 1: you grow your economy.”
Scott said he would not raise the retirement age for Social Security.
DeSantis, who noted he knows a lot of seniors in a Florida joke that got some laughs, said Social Security promises that have been made must be kept. The Florida governor said the U.S. must reduce inflation. He said he would not raise the retirement age when life expectancy is declining.
“Congress for decades took money from Social Security. Social Security would have more tax revenue than it put out; they’d take it and write an IOU to Social Security,” he said. “Congress has a lot of dirty hands on this. I’m going to force Congress to stop spending so much money.”
Trump has said he would not make cuts to entitlement programs.