How About a Presidential Debate On Hard Fiscal Issues?

Story Stream
recent articles

We have already absorbed more campaigning from the Republican contenders than most people can stand. We have also seen President Obama, and friends, fire back when his programs were under attack in the Republican primaries. From all sides we have heard sound-bites, catch-phrases, and answers to questions never asked.

Sad to say, it's only going to get worse. You can run from the presidential campaigning, but you can't hide.

There will be more than enough money for general election spending to saturate TV and radio airwaves with political advertising. All of it will be loud. Much of it will be negative. Little of it will have to do with major problems which ought to be discussed by the candidates. In keeping with their managers' instructions, candidates will try to stay "on message" and "off-issue."

The fall debates will be better than the primary debates if only because there will be two candidates rather than 10. But the debates, if they follow precedents, are not likely to shed much light on the problems that really concern people.

Not since 1992 when Ross Perot asked us to "peek under the hood" have Americans been given much of a chance to hear about the long-term, persistent debt and deficit problems of the U.S. During the 8 year Clinton presidency which followed, we enjoyed 4 consecutive no-deficit years. Good fortune may have been partially responsible for that black-ink, but it was achieved in a period when control of the government was divided between the parties just as it is today.

The 2012 candidates, President Obama and Governor Romney, have now been identified. Each has had plenty of time to look under the hood for a careful study of the U.S. debt/deficit problem. So far, their proposals fall well short of the target supported by many budget analysts of stabilizing the debt at about 60% over the next decade.

Both candidates can improve their platforms on fiscal and budget issues, and both probably will. Even so, in an aggressive, noisy campaign, the public may not fully understand the candidates' positions. After all, precision and clarity have never been the hallmarks of presidential campaign advertising.

The incumbent Democrat has eschewed the high standards of his own Debt Commission (Bowles-Simpson) Report, and instead has proposed small tax increases and small spending cuts. The challenging Republican has promised tax cuts aplenty, but his overall economic plan needs clarification, especially since he endorsed the rigorous expense-cutting of the Paul Ryan Budget Plan.

The American people deserve a full debate and discussion on our fiscal problems. With four $1 trillion deficits in row and a debt ratio over 70%, the Washington response of both political parties has been to "kick the can down the road." Kicking the can is political-speak for saddling future generations with this generation's refusal to meet its own obligations.

Full debate for presidential candidates has come to mean the officially blessed TV debates, which began in 1960. These debates, and the questioners, are often justly criticized. Nevertheless, the TV debates remain the best way to probe the candidates' positions on the difficult issues. In contrast to the loud advertising wars of candidates and super-PACS, the debates are the public's best information source.

Because the fiscal problem is so important, the public interest would be well served if at least one of the fall debates were reserved for discussion of the debt, the deficit, and the budget. But, to ensure that the public is fully informed, searching questions should phrased by experienced, bi-partisan budget experts, and put to the candidates, as often as necessary, by skilled questioners.

Candidates can be as evasive as they wish, but slippery answers will be as revealing as bad answers, especially if the question is posed more than once.

The general idea is to guarantee, insofar as possible, that the candidates respond directly to unpleasant questions about the country's dire financial condition. Candidates love to talk about more tax cuts, and about preserving entitlements. That's easy. The hard part is telling the people about the difficult decisions that must be made so that future generations will not be subjected to slow growth, high interest rates and a lower standard of living.

A request has already been made that at least one of the presidential TV debates be reserved for a thorough discussion of the fiscal problem. Whether it will be granted is not yet known. There ought to be strong public support for it.

Many Americans know that we are now living on borrowed money from foreigners. They know that one rating service has already downgraded our debt, and that others may shortly follow. They know low interest rates won't last. They know about our recurring deficits that are always supposed to decline, but never do. Those Americans ought to be demanding at least one Fiscal Debate.


Frenzel, a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, represented Minnesota for 20 years (R-3rd) and was the ranking minority member of the House Budget Committee.  He is also co-chairman of the Committee For A Responsible Federal Budget. 

Show commentsHide Comments

Related Articles