By Andrew Herrmann
9/20/2015

While the Republican candidates spent most of the 2nd Presidential debate discussing each other’s negotiation skills, business acumen, and affirming that America should stop surrendering and start being great again, they managed to wander into a real discussion of public policy issues from time to time. Public policy analysts are trained to focus on the policy (and not the politics), and policy ideas offer a way for candidates to distinguish themselves from one another. Here’s a few of the most interesting policy ideas put forward by the candidates during the debate:

Rand Paul “Sometimes both sides of the civil war are evil, and sometimes intervention sometimes makes us less safe. This is real the debate we have to have in the Middle East.”

In a debate where the candidates seemed to be one-upping themselves in their attempts to criticize President Obama for “leading from behind” in Syria and criticizing the deal with Iran, Senator Paul’s take was a refreshing acknowledgement of the complexities of foreign policy and the fact that sometimes foreign policy boils down to choosing the ‘least bad’ option, not an ambiguously correct choice.

Ben Carson: “I think we also have to have two minimum wages, a starter, and a sustaining because how are young people ever going to get a job if you have such a high minimum wage that it makes it impractical to hire them.” 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the labor force participation rate for 16-19 year olds declined from 51.3 in 1992 to 27.3 in 2012, and is projected to further decline through 2022. Carson’s point acknowledges a common worry among many economists: minimum wage hikes may increase unemployment for those on the margins of the labor market, especially youth, as employers are less incentivized to hire young workers without experience if they need to pay them a higher rate. This concept has already been recognized by the Department of Labor, which sets a youth minimum wage of $4.25 per hour for employees under the age of 20 during their first 90 consecutive calendar days of employment with an employer. Similarly, Australia has a national policy wherein the minimum wage for youth starts at 38% of the national level for workers under age 16 and increases each year through age 21. Given that most of the rest of the economic policy discussion during the debate could be boiled down to ‘taxes = bad’ and ‘wealth = good’, it was nice to hear a nuanced point made about a possible solution to the declining labor participation rate among youth, though further analysis of Dr. Carson’s proposal is needed.

Rand Paul: “In the current circumstances, kids who had privilege like you do don’t go to jail, but the poor kids in our inner cities go to jail. I don’t think that’s fair. And I think we need to acknowledge it.”

Carly Fiorina: “Two-thirds of the people in our prisons are there for nonviolent offenses, mostly drug-related. It is clearly not working.”

Paul’s response to Jeb Bush’s admission that he used marijuana 40 years ago highlights a fundamental disparity in the American criminal justice system: African-Americans and White Americans use drugs at similar rates, yet African-Americans are incarcerated for drug-related offenses at much higher rates than White Americans. It was significant that two Republican candidates mentioned that potential policy changes on this issue are needed, and perhaps a sign that bi-partisan support for criminal justice reform is an increased possibility. However, it is important to note that only around 1/5th of the individuals currently incarcerated are imprisoned for drug related offenses. Assumedly Fiorina’s solution to the incarceration problem would be to release non-violent drug offenders, but this would only impact a minority of those currently incarcerated, and do nothing to address the broader issue of racial inequity in incarceration.

Perhaps the least surprising aspect of the second debate was the amount of time the candidates spent discussing substantive policy issues. The majority of the conversation (and the questions) focused on topics such as leadership, personality, and criticizing the record of the current administration, rather than discussing potential solutions to tough policy challenges.  It would be great if the candidates recognize that innovative policy ideas offer an alternative means of differentiating themselves beyond ad hominem attacks and one-liners, especially when the current front-runner is a reality TV star known for his media-friendly personality.

Andrew Herrmann is a Master of Public Policy student at University of California, Berkeley.