Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Wanted: Candidates who tell us to eat our spinach -- Dec. 18, 2014 column


As we dive into the 2016 presidential race, it’s worth remembering a low point in the 2012 contest -- so that maybe, just maybe, we won’t repeat it.

Cast your mind back to August 2011, when eight candidates for the Republican presidential nomination were in a debate in Ames, Iowa. A moderator asked for a show of hands: Who would walk away from a deal that cut $10 from the deficit for every $1 in tax increases?

All eight candidates raised their hands – and the crowd of GOP activists erupted in cheers and shouts of approval.  

We can agree that the way the question was asked, with a quick show of hands, hardly invites serious discussion. And, yes, primaries and caucuses bring out true-believers from party wings. General election voters are more moderate. Still, it was a defining moment: Revenues would be off the table -- again.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman later said he regretted going along with the pack but not doing so would have required a lot of explaining.

“What was going through my mind was, `Don’t I just want to get through this?’” Huntsman said. “That has caused me a lot of heartburn.”

Democrats as well as Republicans want to “get through this” without tackling the tough fiscal issues. But thoughtful people in both parties believe meaningful deficit reduction must include a combination of spending cuts and revenue increases. We keep putting off the hard conversations needed to find the right mix.    

Conventional wisdom says that nobody gets elected telling voters to eat their spinach. Successful candidates promise pie with meringue a mile high. Obviously, it’s more inspiring to talk about creating jobs, improving education and promoting cutting-edge technology than about slicing entitlements and raising the retirement age.

And yet, many voters do want what’s best for America. They would listen to a presidential contender who has the courage and skill to explain why it’s time for spinach.

Two veteran political pros are urging us to ask more of our presidential candidates this time around.

Retired U.S. Sens. John C. Danforth, Republican of Missouri, and J. Robert Kerrey, Democrat of Nebraska, have a message for the presidential candidates of 2016: “Don’t duck the debt.”

The debt is the cumulative amount the nation owes, and it continues to rise. This is happening even though the deficit, the difference between what the government takes in and spends in a year, has been declining since the end of the Great Recession.

Kerrey and Danforth co-chaired the 1994 Bipartisan Commission on Entitlement and Tax Reform, in which 30 of 32 commission members agreed then that “current trends are not sustainable” and urged policy changes. These included raising national savings, preventing entitlements from consuming ever more of the federal budget, dealing with projected increases in health care costs, and balancing spending and revenues for Medicare and Social Security. 

The New York Times headline about that 1994 report read, “Yawns greet a warning about the burning fuse on entitlements.”

Some things have changed for the better in the last 20 years, Kerrey and Danforth agreed Tuesday as they released an update at a forum sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Council and Concord Coalition in Washington. We spend less than projected on interest on the debt; health care costs have declined. Overall, though, the trend still is not sustainable, they said. The burning fuse is shorter.

The burden of debt has risen from about half the gross domestic product in 1994 to three-fourths, and is still growing. We tip-toe around the big problems – health care costs and entitlements. Our aging population taps Social Security and Medicare more each year, taking money we could invest in domestic and international priorities to make us stronger as a nation.

To the presidential candidates in 2016, whoever they are, Kerrey and Danforth say: “Your campaign promises for reviving the economy, strengthening national defense, improving the social safety net or reducing the tax burden will ring hollow if they count on an escalating and unsustainable infusion of borrowed money.”

Like it or not, the next president will have to focus on fiscal issues. Voters should ask candidates for their solutions to the nation’s fiscal mess, and candidates should be straight with the people.

Let us eat spinach.  

© 2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


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