ROCHESTER, Mich. — Slated to focus on economic issues, the Republican presidential primary debate last night encompassed a wide range of topics including international affairs, health care and the federal student loan program.

The debate, held at Oakland University, featured GOP candidates former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R–Minn.), former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Herman Cain, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R–Texas) and U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum (R–Penn.).

When answering the debate’s opening question, all the candidates hesitated to promote financial support for Europe’s struggling economy. Cain and Romney expressed a desire to focus on supporting the domestic economy over offering international economic aid. Romney discussed his seemingly two-sided record of favoring a bailout for the Detroit auto industry in 2008 and then later retracting his support.

“I care about this state and about auto industry like — I guess like no one else on this stage,” Romney said. “My view with regards to the bailout was that whether it was by President Bush or by President Obama, it was the wrong way to go. I said from the very beginning they should go through a managed bankruptcy process, a private bankruptcy process.”

The candidates moved on to discuss tax plans and government regulation, during which Cain’s famous 9-9-9 plan took center stage. The sexual harassment allegations against Cain were mentioned briefly and quickly dismissed when Cain said they were “unfounded accusations.”

“I value my character and my integrity more than anything else,” Cain said. “And for every one person that comes forward with a false accusation, there are probably … thousands who would say none of that sort of activity ever came from Herman Cain.”

The candidates’ initiatives to cut government spending and restructure the tax system were met with applause and enthusiasm from the audience, particularly when Paul announced his desire to cut $1 trillion from the federal budget during his first year in office. The candidates frequently reiterated their support of businesses and the importance of a free market system.

“The right thing for America is to have profitable enterprises that can hire people,” Romney said. “I want to make American businesses successful and thrive. What we have in Washington today is a president and an administration that doesn’t like business, that somehow thinks they want jobs, but they don’t like businesses.”

The topic of economics based on laissez-faire principles continued as the debate shifted into the health care sector. Each candidate expressed their opposition to Obama’s health care law and said they would act to repeal it upon entering office.

The candidates disagreed, however, on the issue of the costly federal student loan program. Paul announced his desire to cut the program entirely in addition to eliminating the Department of Education to make education more cost effective and beneficial for students.

“So when the government gets involved in the delivery of any service — whether it’s education, medical care, or housing — they cause higher prices, lower quality, create bubbles and they give us this mess that we’re in,” Paul said.

Gingrich pointed to the College of the Ozarks in Oliver Township, Mo. — that uses a work-study program in which students work 20 hours each week in exchange for a free education — as an example of an ideally cheap and high quality approach to funding higher education. But he called the program so unusual that most young Americans would experience a “culture shock” if the system were changed.

Jesse Benton, Paul’s national campaign manager who spoke with The Michigan Daily after the debate, said Paul’s plan does not entail the immediate removal of federal student loans, but rather a gradual shift away from dependency on the program so government spending is minimized and the quality of American education is maintained.

“The truth is that the federal student loan program has completely messed up our higher education system,” Benton said. “Look at the exploding cost and look at the diminishing quality. Look at the job market we’re handing our students when they get out and work.”

In an interview with the Daily after the debate, Santorum said the increasing amount of federal subsidies provided to students greatly attributes to the skyrocketing cost of higher education. He added that in many regards, the costs associated with attending college, like the price of textbooks, is a “scam.” Ultimately, the current state of higher education is hindering the ability for students to learn effectively, Santorum said.

“There’s all these artificial costs that are built into a college education, and they can get away with it because kids aren’t feeling the real impact of the cost if they’re borrowing all that money and we have to change that,” Santorum said.

LSA sophomore Russ Hayes, a member of the University’s chapter of College Republicans, was in attendance at the debate and said in an interview afterward that the general sense of accordance among the eight candidates was important to showcase the candidates’ desire — regardless of their background — to progress the nation.

“Overall that consensus, that universal agreement that something needed to change, that was important,” Hayes said.

Hayes said he agreed with comments made by Paul regarding divesting federal funds from higher education funding since it cultivates higher inflation rates and ultimately encumbers students’ abilities to find post-graduate employment.

“The argument is that when the federal government loans money to people it inflates the value of an education,” Hayes said. “Education is key. I think all sides agree that education is incredibly important, and what we need is people to get jobs with their degrees.”

Hayes added that despite the lauding of education among government officials, the reality is that students are failing to obtain jobs with their degrees, creating an issue similar to the housing bubble, as Paul mentioned, in which students invest a large amount of money that leads to little pay off, or even bankruptcy, in the long run.

“The problem is we have people coming out of college with degrees, and they’re just not working,” Hayes said. “The degree is not what it was 10 to 15 years ago. The problem that Ron Paul and a lot of the Republican candidates see is this bubble of education like what we saw with the housing bubble. The worry is if we keep pouring grants and pouring loans to students that won’t be able to afford it and will be in debt, that’s a worry.”

— Daily News Editor Bethany Biron contributed to this report.

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