How To Watch Tonight’s Debate

A cure for issues guilt.

You’re feeling guilty. Tonight’s the last presidential debate, and it’s all about domestic policy, and you still haven’t mastered the details of John Kerry’s health care plan or President Bush’s Social Security privatization plan. Well, I have a little secret for you. It doesn’t matter! 

Why doesn’t it matter? Because by presiding over a sagging economy, slashing taxes for the rich, writing a blank check to drug companies in the new Medicare-drug bill, waging an expensive war in Iraq, and accelerating spending, President Bush has taken the balanced budget left him by President Clinton and turned it into a $422 billion deficit. Not bad for a conservative! His timing couldn’t be worse, because, as noted in an Oct. 7 report by the Concord Coalition, a bipartisan deficit-hawk group, the first batch of retiring Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) will start collecting Social Security before the next presidential term ends. As noted in today’s New York Times, Kerry’s proposals would add $1.27 trillion to the deficit between now and 2014 (including $177 billion for his health-care plan). That might sound irresponsible if President Bush’s proposals didn’t total somewhere between $2 trillion and $4 trillion during the same period. (The Concord Coalition says the total is $1.33 trillion but quickly points out that this doesn’t include Bush’s Social Security privatization, which would cost between $1 trillion and $2 trillion.)

Tonight, whenever either candidate mentions a domestic-policy proposal, ask yourself the following question: “Will this cost the government a lot of money?” If the answer is “yes,” feel free to tune out discussion of the proposal’s substance.

Instead of trying to master the details of complicated new proposed initiatives, focus on the following question: Which of these guys will do a better job cleaning up the horrible fiscal mess left behind by President Bush’s first term? Because, when you get down to it, that’s the only honest job description for the domestic-policy part of this gig. One way to answer that question is to compare Bush’s $2 trillion to $4 trillion in new costs to Kerry’s $1.27 trillion. Another is to see if you can identify which candidate even recognizes that there’s a mess to clean up. Come to think of it, that isn’t a bad method for sizing up the foreign-policy part of this job, either.