Europe Is a Mess; So Are the GOP Candidates' Plans to Deal With It

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In two hours of debate, no presidential hopeful gave a serious answer on the biggest threat to the global recovery right now

It's both fitting and unfortunate that Wednesday night's Republican presidential debate will be remembered for Rick Perry spacing on the name of the third federal agency he'd eliminate as president.

Unfortunate, because Perry's mother-of-all-awkward-moments totally overshadowed the rest of the debate, including the candidates' answers on how they'd deal with the volcanic economic crisis erupting from Europe.

Fitting, because the entire field spaced on the Europe answer, too.

Europe's problems should absolutely terrify anyone who cares about the American economy; its sovereign debts could infect banks around the world, potentially triggering a new wave of financial crisis, and a European recession would drag on already slow U.S. growth.

But the candidates who assembled at the CNBC debate in Detroit treated those threats as a far-away nuisance, like famine in Africa or an earthquake in Mongolia: very serious, very sad, not our problem.

Asked about Italy and its debt meltdown in the first question of the night, Herman Cain, the co-frontrunner for the GOP nomination in most polls, declared America must "focus on the domestic economy, or we will fail." He added: "There's not a lot that the United States can directly do for Italy right now, because they are really way beyond the point of return that we as the United States can save them."

Same question to Mitt Romney, the other co-frontrunner. Similar answer. "Europe is able to help Europe," he said. "We have to focus on getting our own economy in order and making sure we never have the kind of problem Italy is having."

Ron Paul said he would let Europe's debt "liquidate." Perry fell back on a riff against "too big to fail." So did Jon Huntsman, but at least he bothered to connect America's economic fate to how events play out on the Old Continent, warning of U.S. exposure to potential cascading losses in Europe's banks. "As long as we have banks that are too big to fail in this country," Huntsman said, "we're going to catch the contagion, and it's going to hurt us."

And that was it. The debate lasted nearly two hours, but no candidate veered seriously again toward Europe - which was the only the driver of a hefty nosedive in the stock market on Wednesday, and which could safely be called the biggest danger to the global recovery right now.

It's stunning that a Republican field that includes a former ambassador, a former House speaker and two successful former businessmen - and which, to a candidate, gushed over the virtues of markets throughout the debate - so casually brushed aside the struggles of the world's largest collective economy (the Eurozone is bigger, economically, than the United States) and America's largest trading partner.

You don't have to believe America should bail out Italy, Greece or the entire Eurozone - a straw-man concept that no one in Washington is even floating, but several candidates took pains to denounce on Wednesday night - to recognize that the United States has a role to play in averting another global financial crisis. At the very least, you should expect lawmakers, and presidential candidates, to be making plans for how to respond if the European crisis escalates.

There were no such plans to be found on the debate stage on Wednesday. Republican primary voters should start demanding some, right away.

Image credit: AP Photo/Paul Sancya

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Jim Tankersley is a correspondent (economics) for National Journal.

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