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GOP candidates attack Biden’s economic policies but offer few details on how they’d do better

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican presidential candidate, released his economic plan at the Prep Partners Group in Rochester, N.H., on July 31.DAVID DEGNER/NYT

WASHINGTON — Republican presidential hopefuls seem just as eager as President Biden to make the 2024 campaign a referendum on Bidenomics. There’s just one problem: Few of them have offered much of an alternative.

Even amid increased optimism the economy can avoid a recession, there’s plenty to criticize, including higher prices at the supermarket and gas station, rising rents and mortgage rates, and large federal budget deficits and deteriorating finances for Social Security and Medicare. And the Republican presidential candidates lay the blame squarely on President Biden.

“The Biden economic bust will be replaced by the historic Trump economic boom,” former president Trump declared in a speech in Windham, N.H., last week.


But though all the Republican contenders argue they could do better on the economy, few of them have yet to explain exactly how.

There’s a lot of general talk about lowering inflation, slashing government spending, cutting taxes, boosting US energy production, and getting tougher on America’s biggest global competitor, China. But heading into the first Republican debate next week, only two of the candidates — Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former vice president Mike Pence — have unveiled detailed economic plans.

Instead, culture war issues such as abortion and LGBTQ rights, as well as Trump’s indictments, have taken center stage.

Meanwhile, Biden and administration officials have been traveling the country in recent weeks touting continued solid job growth and moderating inflation as evidence that his policies, dubbed Bidenomics, are working after disruptions to the economy caused by the pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Letting the White House dominate the conversation isn’t good for Republicans with polls consistently showing that voters rank the economy as the most important issue, said Jon McHenry, a GOP pollster not affiliated with any of the campaigns.


“It makes a lot of sense to be out there ... talking about what you’re going to do to fix the economy,” McHenry said of the candidates in the GOP primary campaign. “Republicans are better served being involved on the issue and laying the groundwork on it rather than ceding the issue to Joe Biden for the next 12 months or so.”

DeSantis and Pence rolled out their proposals late last month, with DeSantis offering a broad 10-point plan just days after Pence zeroed in on inflation. Both are continuing to highlight the plans on the campaign trail.

“While there are a myriad of challenges that people are facing, none are more important than the kitchen table and economic issues … the ability to put food on the table and gas in the car,” said Devin O’Malley, a Pence campaign adviser.

In unveiling the inflation plan on July 26, the Pence campaign took a shot at his opponents for not having detailed proposals of their own. “Unfortunately, many Republican presidential candidates are too busy catfighting amongst themselves to develop a plan that will bring inflation under control,” said a one-page summary of the Pence inflation plan, according to CNN.

Pence said he would take four steps to lower inflation:

  • Cut government spending by, among other methods, freezing non-defense spending, rescinding electric vehicle tax credits and other Biden initiatives, and eliminating the Environmental Protection Agency and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau;
  • Require the Federal Reserve to focus solely on inflation by repealing its other congressional mandate to maximize employment;
  • Boost US manufacturing to avoid global supply chain problems;
  • Increase energy production by allowing more drilling on federal land and opening the Arctic and offshore areas to exploration.

A few days later, DeSantis unveiled his plan, called “A Declaration of Economic Independence,” in a speech in Rochester, N.H. The proposal was a mix of traditional Republican policies — such as low taxes, less government regulation, reduced federal spending, and increased energy production — and some “anti-woke” initiatives, such as ending the use of “environmental, social, and governance standards” in corporate investing.


DeSantis also included some populist appeals that are less aligned with traditional Republican orthodoxy, such as defending the use of cryptocurrency and allowing student loan debt to be more easily discharged in bankruptcy.

“I’m running for president because we need to reverse the decline of this country and restore our country to the greatness that it deserves,” DeSantis said. “And that begins by restoring an American economy that actually works for American families again.”

But DeSantis focused very little on inflation, which is the economic problem most directly affecting people. A Pew Research Center poll released in June found 65 percent of respondents identified inflation as a “very big problem,” edging out health care for the top spot.

McHenry said Pence was smart to frame his economic plan, which goes beyond inflation, as still primarily focused on that problem.

“It’s a good shorthand on the economy,” he said. “Just talking about inflation is a pretty good way to make sure people are on the same page with you.”

But the July 31 DeSantis speech is broadly typical of how Republicans are dealing with the economy at this point in the campaign, said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, an economist and president of the conservative-leaning American Action Forum think tank.

“There’s first of all a statement of some sort that says, ‘We have a problem we have to fix it.’... And then there’s some finger-pointing at who the villains are that have put us in decline,” said Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. “On top of that list is Joe Biden, maybe at the top of that list is China, but it’s neck and neck.”


Even with detailed plans, there’s not a lot of specifics because campaign strategists don’t want to hem in candidates, said Holtz-Eakin, who was an economic adviser to Republican John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.

“This is sort of like peeling the onion in reverse — you’re building the onion,” he said. “You lay out broad principles and then within the broad principles you lay out priorities. Then you start providing some details on how you’ll do it.”

Trump, the polling front-runner, has provided some details, including putting tariffs on all foreign-made goods and “drill baby drill” for more oil. But his pitch has been mostly to overstate how well the economy did when he was president and vow to return it to that level after four years of the Biden administration.

“They’re running on the fumes of what we did, and we did an incredible job,” Trump boasted in Windham.

While job creation was solid and unemployment historically low under Trump, economic growth was still somewhat sluggish before the pandemic triggered a severe but short recession. The economic recovery began under Trump but was accelerated by the $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill Biden helped push through Congress in early 2021 that is also partially blamed for fueling high inflation.


Kevin Munoz, a spokesman for Biden’s campaign, said it’s the Republican agenda that is bad for the economy.

“The bottom line is that the MAGA Republicans running for president are doubling down on Donald Trump’s rejected, trickle-down agenda of tax cuts for the rich, threats to Social Security and Medicare, and taking jobs away from the United States,” Munoz said. “Bidenomics is bringing jobs back home and lowering costs for middle-class families.”

For now, Biden is doing more talking in detail about the economy than his Republican opponents, making Bidenomics a centerpiece of his reelection campaign.

“I don’t know if it’s the dumbest or gutsiest move I’ve seen politically in the last 20 years,” McHenry said.

Biden frequently mentions the record job growth during his term and the decline in inflation from last year’s four-decade high. He also highlights legislation pumping investments into the economy, including infrastructure, microchip manufacturing, and green energy, though it’s unclear those are resonating with voters.

Holtz-Eakin thinks Republicans will focus more intensely on the economy in the general election against Biden. In the meantime, Republican candidates are hoping they can avoid the specifics and just bash him.

“If you can make him so unattractive that you don’t even have to say what you’re going to do, in the eyes of the political strategists, that’s a huge victory,” he said. “You’ve given away no flexibility and you’ve gotten yourself up in the polls.”

Jim Puzzanghera can be reached at Follow him @JimPuzzanghera.