Politicians Should Debate the Deficit

I just survived — barely — an interview for a student organization at Georgetown. On the bright side, I didn’t have to channel my innerRick Perry by uttering “oops” after a monumental brain freeze. I never said I saw a UFO as Dennis Kucinich did in the 2007 Democratic presidential debate. Nevertheless, I had my fair share of close encounters with questions that appeared before me like unidentified flying objects.

As a result of this experience, I have a newfound respect for the challenges presidential candidates face. Take, for example, the uproar that occurred at the Republican presidential debate CNN recently hosted on Sept. 16, 2015, at the Reagan Library. There, Republican candidates crowded before Ronald Reagan’s decommissioned presidential jet for three hours like standby passengers hoping to board a flight going nowhere. They were grilled for three hours finding small respite in a couple of softball questions about women on the $10 bill and what their Secret Service code name should be.

Mike Huckabee, for example, selected his wife for the $10 bill because that way “she could spend her own money.” After I watched “Gone with the Wind” last summer, I feared one of the male candidates might controversially choose its coquettish heroine Scarlett O’Hara for the $10 bill and its rakish hero Rhett Butler as his super-secret code name. But the candidates played it safe. Even though these Republican candidates entertained a whole host of questions at this debate, they were strangely reluctant to discuss the federal debt and deficit — two issues traditionally indispensable to a Republican running for office. In fact, The Washington Post reports that the word “deficit” was only said twice in the debate, and that only one candidate proposed entitlement reform in all three hours.

According to Kevin Williamson of the National Review, writing Sept. 20 in “The Question No Candidate Will Answer,” this reticence arises because these candidates have been playing a game of “double make-believe” around the debt and deficit. They regard governmental spending as irresponsible. Yet, they view budget reform as the electrified third rail of American politics — the one no politician wants to touch for fear of committing political suicide. Thus, some candidates claim to be budget hawks but propose more military spending that threatens the hard-won deficit reduction gains of the sequester.

For Williamson, these political calculations ignore a grim, mathematical reality, as a small number of federal expenditures — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, national security, and interest on the debt — typically constitute about 80 percent of all federal spending. Williamson observes that “there is no mathematically plausible way to balance the budget without: 1) cutting spending on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and/or national security; and/or 2) raising taxes.”

So we come to the question that no presidential candidate wants to answer. What’s it going to be: spending cuts in popular programs, higher taxes or deficits forever? And please, make an effort to abstain from talking about imaginary growth, waste, fraud and abuse when answering this question.

If nothing else, this should reduce the overcrowding at the next Republican presidential debate. Indeed, it might result in hardly any man or woman left standing. This question may also come in handy at the first Democratic presidential debate. There it could be employed — in a liberal fashion of course — whenever a candidate says higher taxes 1-percenters alone will fully solve our fiscal problems.

To be fair, presidential candidates aren’t the only ones who need a nudge or two. As senior editor of the National Review, Jonah Goldberg observes that politicians are politicians, so it should not surprise us that their interests too often lie in votes, not in principles. Thus, we bear the responsibility to do the budget math and change the political calculus so that politicians can align their self-interest with the common good. This means creating a new bipartisan consensus — one where Republicans acknowledge the need for higher taxes just as Democrats recognize the necessity for lower spending.

I hope this political realignment occurs sooner rather than later, because we need to move beyond the shopworn ineffectiveness of our present political gridlock. The national debt exceeds $18 trillion, and it’s increasing about $31,558 every second, as politicians in both parties run up the party tab on the generational theft they are committing against us. Unless meaningful action is taken, our generation will arrive late to this party but get stuck with the bill for a national debt that grew about $300,000 in the short time it took you to read this sentence.

Eric Meyers is a freshman in the College.

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