We're not sure how many words will be spoken by the presidential candidates before November 4.Yet despite all the interviews, speeches and debates, you could easily write a book about what they aren't saying. Let's focus in on just one area: money. There are few choices more fundamental for a president than deciding how to spend the public's money. And there are few areas where political rhetoric is more out of touch with the reality.
The reality is this: the federal budget is in pitiful shape, and it's going to get worse. Nearly every organization that examines the federal budget uses the same word to describe it: unsustainable. That ranges from nonpartisan government agencies (like the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Budget Office), to both liberal and conservative think tanks (Brookings and Heritage - try getting them to agree sometime).
The reasons are also pretty clear. The country is running regular, consistent deficits (an estimated $400 billion this year, and that may be low). We're $9 trillion in debt. The long-term projections are absolutely terrifying. Spending on Social Security and Medicare will get completely out of hand as the baby boomers start taking money out instead of paying in. Medicare, in particular, is going to become a huge burden if health care costs continue to increase.
These are the facts of life for the next president (and by extension, the rest of us, too). But you wouldn't know it to listen to the candidates.
Take the Bush tax cuts, just for starters. They're set to expire in 2010, and talking about them actually gets quite complicated, since they're a series of cuts enacted in two different rounds. Despite what many people believe, the Bush tax cuts are not the sole cause of the government's current red ink. They've cost us about $1.3 trillion so far, but over the past seven years the national debt has increased almost three times that much. Still, the fact that the tax cuts expire in two years gives us an excellent opportunity to debate what we want from the government and how much we're willing to pay for it.
Yet despite the country's massive budget problems, none of the likely nominees (John McCain for the Republicans, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the Democrats) suggests repealing all the Bush cuts. McCain aims to extend the whole package; Clinton and Obama both plan to extend some provisions, such as the child tax credit and elimination of the so-called "marriage penalty." Both say they'd repeal parts of the cuts benefiting people making more than $250,000 per year.
These are all perfectly defensible policy choices - so long as you're willing to pay for them. McCain says he'll cut the budget to make up the difference. He'll need a hacksaw and a magically compliant Congress because that's going to take a lot of cutting - and he has yet to say how he's going to do it. Same with Clinton and Obama. They say they'll increase taxes on the rich, but they'll eat up that money and considerably more on planned new programs.
We could go on. McCain says he'd eliminate the alternative minimum tax. Obama wants $4,000 college tuition credits. Clinton wants to spend $25 billion on home heating subsidies. Every one of these may well be a perfectly legitimate goal, but asking how they'll be paid for is a perfectly legitimate question.
In one early episode of "The Simpsons," Bart is trying to organize the other kids to stand up to Nelson the bully. "I can't promise you victory," Bart begins. "I can't promise you good times." The kids start leaving. "Okay, okay," Bart cries. "I promise you victory! I promise you good times!" And the kids stay. Everything we've seen so far suggests that the presidential candidates are intelligent, committed, and eager to take the country forward. But they're channeling Bart Simpson when they talk about the country's finances, and they're doing it because they believe the American public, like the people of Springfield, will only hang around for promises of "victory" and "good times."
Based on the opinion research we've seen, the majority of Americans can be impressively sensible and level-headed when they are given the facts and asked to consider trade-offs, but they don't like to be blindsided. Right now there are three people likely to be the next president of the United States. All three of them are at risk of blindsiding the public - and getting slammed in turn themselves.