Give Us Something To Talk About

The presidential candidates aren’t serious about the budget.

Barack Obama and John McCain

I wish presidential candidates were as honest as they tell us they’re going to be. For one thing, it would make campaign events more entertaining. I’d like to thank Bill Wilson for that generous introduction if I had any idea who Bill Wilson was. A little honesty would also inject a note of reality—and also panic—into the current debate about the economy. Instead of sticking to the supposed panacea of new programs or tax cuts to lure voters, the presidential candidates would admit that the federal budget is such a mess that voters are likely to face substantial trade-offs and sacrifice in the coming years.

You laugh. This kind of wish is fulfilled only at earnest symposia held in windowless rooms attended by men in droopy socks and women in tennis shoes.

Lord knows, I’m easily distracted by the horse race, too, but since the candidates keep telling me how honest they are, I figure it might be worth holding them to their boasts. John McCain promises “straight talk” on the side of his bus, and Barack Obama declares at almost every speech that he’s going to tell voters what they need to hear and not simply what they want to hear. In Troy, Mich., the day before clinching the nomination, he promised “a politics that is about telling the truth. Honesty and straight talk, not spin and P.R.”

Hello Cleveland! I’d rather be anywhere else.

If the candidates talked straight about the fiscal situation, they would note that much of the budget they will inherit is on autopilot. Entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid take up 42 percent of the federal pie and will mushroom to nearly 70 percent over the next two decades as baby boomers retire. That means less discretionary money for all those programs from national parks and homeland security to defense and education.

The 2009 deficit will be in excess of $400 billion, which means it’s not enough for a candidate to say that his new programs are paid for. McCain and Obama also have to tell us how they’re going to tackle the deficit beast that George Bush failed to tame. Even if the next president scrapped Bush’s tax cuts, ended the popular Medicare prescription-drug benefit, and returned defense spending to prewar levels, he would still have to pay off hundreds of billions from the interest on the Bush debt. That will (or at least should) put a cramp in any administration’s style.

How great is the state of denial on the campaign trail? When the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget put out its 12-step program to encourage candidates to talk about fiscal responsibility, the first item was to admit that the problem exists. If you listen to former Comptroller of Currency Dave Walker outline what he calls the super subprime crisis of unaddressed problems in the budget and then read an Obama or McCain economic speech, the disparity becomes fantastical. It’s as if the candidates are promising everyone free facials and lake-front timeshares.

If conscience doesn’t move McCain and Obama to acknowledge all of this, then the policy realities should. The sooner decisions are made about national spending priorities, the more time the public will have to adjust, and the easier it will be to spread the sacrifices broadly. If the winning candidate waits to face these issues once he’s in office, he’ll have missed the chance to build a national mandate for the tough choices he’s going to be forced to make. There’s also a crass political reason to start talking about the budget now: When the arithmetic forces a future president to disappoint constituencies, it won’t come as a surprise. The president can make denial look virtuous. He can’t spend the money because he’s keeping his campaign promise to restore fiscal responsibility.

And yet, of course, when you’re trying to feel the voters’ pain, it’s politically dangerous to tell them more is on the way. Obama, who still suffers from his remarks about the bitterness of small-town people, is engaged in a two-week tour on which he’s trying to woo white working-class voters who live in swing states. On Monday in North Carolina, he offered tax cuts for middle-income families and retirees, a $50 billion economic stimulus package, expansion of unemployment benefits, and relief for homeowners facing foreclosure. McCain, for his part, is trying to live down his admission that he doesn’t know as much about the economy as he does about, say, the Iraq war. On Tuesday, he doled out tax cuts and found a new passion for opposing the estate tax and contradicted a previous position on Social Security tax hikes.

Both candidates also face pressures from within their parties. Barack Obama isn’t going to be brave about the trade-offs needed to fix Social Security when many Democrats don’t believe there’s a problem at all (or if there is, it can be fixed with economic growth). While John McCain is having trouble with evangelicals, he’s not going to risk offending his party’s other devout wing, the tax-cutters.

So far, Barack Obama has not given a speech on the topic of fiscal restraint or budget balancing. He did give one on Social Security, but it was mostly designed to show that Hillary Clinton hadn’t told the truth  about what she would consider doing to fix it. And in that speech, Obama retreated from his fiscally honest position of considering a wider number of options for fixing the system.

McCain has said he would balance the budget by the end of his first term, but he’s wobbling on that pledge, saying it’s now just a goal. Overall, McCain talks more about fiscal responsibility than Obama. He has also done far more to tell voters uncomfortable truths. He’s done that on immigration, job losses, and the war. But straighter talk only gets you so far: McCain talks regularly about cutting special earmark programs in the federal budget—as he did this Tuesday—but earmarks are just one sliver of the problem. McCain supports tax cuts that are poised to make the fiscal situation far worse than Obama’s spending plans. McCain’s team says they can pay for these tax cuts and balance the budget, but budget experts of all ideological persuasions are highly dubious. You can even imagine that the McCain of old, who spoke out against the Bush tax cuts, would call B.S. on his own plan.

To defend themselves, both campaigns point to the relative shortcomings of the other. McCain says Obama’s spending plans will bloat the budget, and Obama says McCain’s tax cuts will do the same. They’re both right, but saying the-other-guy-is-worse-than–I-am is probably not the kind of stirring leadership that brings all those people to those Obama rallies. Nor is it why John McCain has gotten credit for political courage over the years. If the promises of truth-telling keep coming but the serious discussion doesn’t, then I’m going to expect some kind of honesty to make up the candor deficit. Ladies and gentlemen, what I’m about to promise you has little bearing in reality.