04/05/2012 10:20 pm ET Updated Apr 06, 2012

Election 2012: Shift To Obama vs. Romney May End Silly Season

WASHINGTON -- The news Thursday was dominated by Democratic accusations that the Republican National Committee chairman compared women to caterpillars, which prompted the RNC to counter that President Barack Obama hasn't played enough golf with women.

So it's safe to say that silly season is not quite behind us, and never will be.

But as the political discussion abruptly shifted this week away from the GOP primary and toward a showdown between Republican Mitt Romney and Democrat Obama, the debate moved quickly as well to some very big questions.

Suddenly, instead of Etch A Sketch and pornography, the debate was about the national debt, the federal budget, and government's role and size. Obama and Romney took shots at each other in back-to-back speeches Tuesday and Wednesday over entitlement reform and federal spending.

"The general election was always going to be about big issues because there are big differences," said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum and a former economic adviser to John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign.

"The trouble with the Republican primary is [that] on the economy and the budget and those sort of things, everyone's pretty much in the same place. So they get to fight over silly stuff. It's a good thing to put behind them," Holtz-Eakin said.

A recent report from the bipartisan Center for a Responsible Federal Budget painted the nation's immediate fiscal challenges in stark detail. The U.S. government is facing a steep "fiscal cliff" at the end of the year, as Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke termed it.

At the end of 2012:
  • The Bush tax cuts are set to expire, which would drive the highest marginal tax rate from 35 percent to 39.6 percent and would move taxpayers in the 10 percent tax bracket up to 15 percent.
  • A spending cut package of $1.2 trillion over 10 years will go into effect, in place because the super committee appointed last year to implement the Bowles-Simpson committee's recommendations failed to reach an agreement.
  • The alternative minimum tax patch will expire, increasing the number of Americans who pay it from 4 million to roughly 30 million.
  • Payroll tax rates will go back to 6.2 percent from their current 4.2 percent.
  • Extended unemployment insurance benefits will be eliminated.
  • The current "doc fix" expires, meaning government payments to physicians treating Medicare payments will be reduced 30 percent.
  • Roughly $455 billion in tax credits and deductions, commonly called "tax extenders," are set to expire.
  • The national debt will near $16.4 trillion, the current limit under law, which will require another congressional vote to raise the "debt ceiling."

Most experts believe it would be foolish to let the nation go off this cliff, arguing that some combination of the tax cuts, alternative minimum tax patch, doc fix and the other measures should be extended. But each of those things increases the budget deficit, either by reducing revenues or by spending more money.

And when the deficit goes up, so does the national debt. The debt is already near a level that many experts believe has a significant negative impact on gross domestic product and economic growth.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), has been proposing an overhaul of the budget and of the government's health care programs -- Medicare and Medicaid -- for the last few years to reduce government spending and debt.

Romney has embraced Ryan and most of the concepts in his budget, and campaigned with him for several days leading up to Tuesday's Wisconsin primary, which Romney won.

On Tuesday, Obama blasted Ryan's budget, calling it "a prescription for decline" and "thinly veiled social Darwinism." It was quite a different tone than the one Obama took two years ago, when he called Ryan's plan "serious" and "an entirely legitimate proposal."

"There are some ideas in there that I would agree with, but there are some ideas that we should have a healthy debate about because I don't agree with them," Obama told a gathering of House Republicans in January 2010.

Obama is seeking to portray Romney as out of touch with middle-class Americans who are in dire economic straits. That helps explain the hyperbolic rhetoric to describe the budget and entitlement plan that Romney has endorsed.

Romney hit back at Obama on Wednesday, noting that on the issue of making Medicare solvent, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told Ryan in February: "We're not coming before you to say we have a definitive solution to our long-term problem. What we do know is we don't like yours."

That line has been little noticed up until now, but is guaranteed to become one that Republicans bring up time and again as the campaign debate heats up.

"You store that one away for a while," Holtz-Eakin said.

Jared Bernstein, who was Vice President Joe Biden's chief economist until the middle of 2011, laughed when Geithner's comment came up during an interview Thursday.

"Geez. Thanks," he chuckled.

Bernstein said the criticism that Obama doesn't have a plan for the long-term debt is "completely false." Obama's health care law, he argued, is the best plan for reducing health care costs, one of the two biggest reasons that Medicare is such a headache, along with the rising number of aging Americans entering the program.

"There's no fiscal sustainability unless we attack the excess cost burden in Medicare," Bernstein told HuffPost. "The Affordable Care Act, which is what the president can and should point to in this regard, as well as the treasury secretary, may or may not achieve that goal. But it's the most substantive approach I've seen."

"It's the law of the land, so far," Bernstein said, alluding to the concern that the Supreme Court may strike it down. "And if it doesn't work, we're going to have to get back under the hood and find something that does."

"But that's the only way to go. Just shifting costs onto beneficiaries doesn't do it."

Bernstein and Obama contend that Ryan's plan claims to reduce Medicare costs because it would make beneficiaries pay more. Ryan argues that making health care pricing more transparent and introducing competition among health care providers for consumer dollars will reduce costs.

But Bernstein said he doesn't think Ryan's plan is really, primarily, about reducing costs.

"I think that's the sub-debate, or that's number 1-a," he said. "I think the broader debate is the role of government."

Of the 2012 election, Bernstein said: "My point ever since I left the White House, my view has been that the core of the debate will be about the size and role of the government in the lives of its people."

That much is certainly true, and the debate that started this week is certain to continue through the summer and into the fall. But it will have to compete with plenty of noise.

"In 2008, the coverage was about what I said in my speech. These days, it’s about what brand of jeans I am wearing and what I ate for lunch," Romney said Wednesday.

Of course, both the Romney and Obama campaigns say the other is the problem.

Kevin Madden, a Romney adviser, said "the president and his campaign want and need this election to be reduced to small things."

"When you're presiding over an economy that is struggling with chronic underemployment, record deficits and gas prices that are over $4 per gallon, the last thing the president wants to do is run on his record," Madden said in an email. "His campaign knows this, so that is why they are maniacally focused on YouTube videos, cable news gaffes and who said what about what car someone drives. Those are small things that they constantly try to make into big things."

The Obama campaign argues that Romney has so far skated through the primary without much detailed examination of his proposals.

"During the Democratic primary in 2008, the candidates went through hours of debate over the details of their health care proposals and sat down with reporters to discuss their plans for Iraq and the implications for the region," said Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt.

"With all of the horse race coverage and the many GOP flavors of the month, we have not seen that same substantive scrutiny during the Republican primary this cycle," LaBolt told HuffPost. "And so we have candidates like Mitt Romney who say they want to balance the budget while expanding tax cuts for the wealthiest by $5 trillion and raising defense spending to an arbitrarily high level, without explaining how he would do it."

If the candidates, their campaigns and the press can somehow consistently place context over clicks and resist the urge to distill every story into 140 characters, then the records of both candidates will come in for that kind of inspection and a campaign about big things will have a debate worthy of the moment.