Candidates Offer Santa When We Need a Scrooge

ABC’s Jake Tapper has an excellent post today that highlights a simple question that voters should be asking of the presidential candidates—”you’re promising a lot, how are you going to pay for it?” This, of course, is a variation on the theme asked by moderator Jim Lehrer in the first debate when he queried the candidates on what parts of their agendas they would give up in the wake of the bailout. As we saw then, instead of an answer we got lots of dancing around the question. It’s no wonder:

Once you get past the soaring oratory, to experience a speech by Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., is to be hit with an astoundingly lengthy list of promises. “I don’t know how any reasonable person” could think he’d really be able to accomplish everything he’s pledging to do, said the mother-in-law of a colleague, a Missouri woman who intends to vote for Obama. Just today in Sarasota, Fla., the Democratic presidential nominee said that he’d: * “give a tax break to 95 percent of Americans who work every day and get taxes taken out of their paycheck every week”; * “eliminate income taxes on Social Security for seniors making under $50,000”; * “give homeowners and working parents additional tax breaks”; * not increase taxes on anyone if they “make under $250,000; you will not see your taxes increase by a single dime ââ?¬â??- not your income taxes, not your payroll tax, not your capital gains tax”; * “end those breaks to companies that ship jobs overseas”; * “give tax breaks to companies that invest right here in the United States”; * “eliminate capital gains taxes for small businesses and start-up companies that are the engine of job creation in this country”; * “create two million new jobs by rebuilding our crumbling roads, and bridges, and schools — by laying broadband lines to reach every corner of the country”; * “invest $15 billion a year in renewable sources of energy to create five million new energy jobs over the next decade”; * “reopen old factories, old plants, to build solar panels, and wind turbines”; * build “a new electricity grid”; * “build the fuel efficient cars of tomorrow”; * “eliminate the oil we import from the Middle East in 10 years”; * “lower premiums” for those who already have health insurance; * “if you don’t have health insurance, you’ll be able to get the same kind of health insurance that members of Congress give themselves”; * “end discrimination by insurance companies to the sick and those who need care the most”; * “invest in early childhood education”; * “recruit an army of new teachers”; * “pay our teachers higher salaries, give them more support. But … also demand higher standards and more accountability”; * “make a deal with every young person who’s here and every young person in America: If you are willing to commit yourself to national service, whether it’s serving in our military or in the Peace Corps, working in a veterans home or a homeless shelter, then we will guarantee that you can afford to go to college no ifs ands or buts”; * “stop spending $10 billion a month in Iraq whole the Iraqis have a huge surplus”; * “end this war in Iraq”; * “finish the fight and snuff out al Qaeda and bin Laden”; * “increase our ground troops and our investments in the finest fighting force in the world”; * “invest in 21st century technologies so that our men and women have the best training and equipment when they deploy into combat and the care and benefits they have earned when they come home”; * “No more homeless veterans”; and * “no more fighting for disability payments.” This on top of his 30-minute infomercial last night, and the myriad other pledges and promises he’s made throughout the last 21 months. [. . .] The AP’s Calvin Woodward took a look at Obama’s assertion that he’s “offered spending cuts above and beyond” what he’s pledging to spend, and he concluded that’s “accepted only by his partisans. His vow to save money by ‘eliminating programs that don’t work’ masks his failure throughout the campaign to specify what those programs are — beyond the withdrawal of troops from Iraq.” Even accepting the savings Obama pledges to bring, the bi-partisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget says Obama will add a net $428 billion to the deficit over the course of his term.

And it’s not just Obama:

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., too is making unrealistic promises. As the Tax Policy Center says of both candidates, “Both John McCain and Barack Obama have proposed tax plans that would substantially increase the national debt over the next 10 years, according to a newly updated analysis by the non-partisan Tax Policy Center. Neither candidate’s plan would significantly increase economic growth unless offset by spending cuts or tax increases that the campaigns have not specified.”

Uggghhh. I’m all for lower taxes, but if you’re not willing to back that up with an even more aggressive strike at the spending and entitlement crises, then you’re not even halfway there. Promising to go line-by-line through the budget or cutting earmarks hardly rise to the level of the serious attention that’s needed. Put simply, we need to cut way more than “wasteful” spending. The true answer to what the candidates would give up is “as little as possible.” And the true answer to how they’d pay for it is “don’t know.” To be truthful would be an admission that neither platform is offering much meaningful in terms of getting the country back on a sustainable budget and fiscal path. We get so distracted by universal health care or bundles of tax credits or incentives of one kind or another that we seem to whistle past the looming fiscal graveyard. Social Security, Medicare, and unfunded public pensions are train wrecks waiting to happen, for starters, yet it’s hard to find policymakers and pundits seriously pondering how you could overlay universal health care, bailouts and economic stimuli, etc. onto that mess and not bankrupt the country. To be fair, both major candidates have signaled their intentions to cut spending, so it’s not like they’re ignoring the issue. Perhaps the best and most substantive idea I’ve heard from either thus far was in the second debate when McCain suggested forming a BRAC-style commission for Social Security reform. That’s probably the only realistic way to depoliticize the issue enough to make progress, and the next President would be wise to push the idea. But spending and entitlement reform seem like afterthoughts when compared to the candidates’ other detailed tax and spending proposals. Maybe that’s why Senator Biden recently stated that he has no interest in pulling a Gore and becoming the point person for a Reinventing Government 2.0. I can’t say I blame him on a personal level—detangling and clearing out such a thick and tangled mess of weeds certainly isn’t an easy or enviable job. But neither is the presidency, and Americans should wake up and demand that their next leader make it a top priority to rid the room of the 800-lb gorillas of entitlement and spending reform before spending dime one on new goodies and giveaways. (Hat tip to Instapundit)