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Sunday, December 4, 2016

WASHINGTON — The Fox News debate this week ought to be an occasion for the Republican Party’s presidential candidates to put new and innovative ideas on display. At the center of the discussion should be last Friday’s report about the historically anemic wage growth during this year’s second quarter.

Here’s guessing that the previous paragraph called forth dismissive chuckles among many shrewd readers for its naivete. We all “know” that the only important thing about Thursday’s encounter — other than which 10 candidates get to participate — is how the rest of the Republican field will deal with Donald Trump, and how The Donald will deal with them.

Many would blame this on Trump, and also on the nature of journalism these days. Well, sure. Trump has a lot to answer for. And the media tend to analyze debates by focusing on gaffes, and on whether a given candidate “did what he (or she) had to do” in political terms. This conditions how the candidates behave.

I would further concede that the mere inclusion of Trump’s name here likely increased my online page views. The media incentives these days militate against searching discussions of the Earned-Income Tax Credit or methods of prompting investors to take a long-term perspective.

But before they take the stage, the Republican candidates who get to confront Trump should ask themselves why a showman who gleefully ignores all the political rules has outshined the rest of the field.

There are many reasons to criticize the far right and what it has done to the GOP, with the complicity of its so-called Establishment. But it’s both remarkably elitist and also an analytical mistake to write off Trump’s backers as “crazies” while ignoring the source of their frustrations. They tend to be less well-to-do Republicans who are fed up with the political system, dislike the codes, and conventions that dictate the way most politicians talk, and have lost confidence that politics and government can really do very much for them.

That Trump is quite brilliant at faking authenticity (except for his thoroughly genuine belief that he’s far better than his opponents whom he loves to brand as “losers”) should not be held against his supporters. It’s not hard to see why they get a kick out of the extent to which he is getting under the skin of his many critics.

If Trump’s rivals see their task as proving themselves to be as theatrically gifted as he is, he’ll clobber them. But there’s an unconventional alternative: lifting up politics by embracing the idea that voters, especially those being hammered by the economy, aren’t dunces and would like for their government and their politicians to take concrete steps to improve their situations. This is especially important in a new economy that simply doesn’t deliver to large parts of the middle class, let alone the poor.

As it is, there is a terribly stale quality to the pronouncements even of candidates such as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio who are bidding to be the “new ideas” guys. While both at least talk about the need to restore paths to upward mobility, their underlying proposals remain rooted in the thinking of the Reagan era. Unwrap their well-packaged agendas and what you have are the same old nostrums: that government can do little about what ails us and that the path to Nirvana is still paved with tax cuts and business deregulation.

But as the progressive economist Joseph Stiglitz noted to me in a conversation last week, it’s precisely the rules and policies of the last 35 to 40 years that have helped lead the middle class into its current economic impasse. I don’t expect many conservatives to embrace Stiglitz’s views. But it would surely be an improvement if these candidates recognized that they are running in 2015, not 1980.

Is there no Republican engaging in a real — as opposed to superficial — questioning of the party’s old assumptions? Is there not even a glimmer of acknowledgement that if stagnating wages are the problem, further tilting the system toward employers and financiers is unlikely to solve it?

Trump’s supporters have an intuition that something is deeply wrong in their party. Their explanations for its shortcomings may differ from my own, but they are correct that the party is not delivering what they have a right to expect. Most candidates will play along with the disaffection. Those who try instead to reverse the loss of faith by responding to it constructively will deserve to win the debate.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is [email protected] Twitter: @EJDionne.

Photo: Donald Trump points as he stands outside his hotel. Action Images via Reuters / Russell Cheyne. Livepic.