Disappointing Debates
Both Romney and Obama offered little in the way of real fiscal conservatism.

Post-debate in Denver, October 3, 2012


Michael Tanner

I Love Bailouts More than You. One of the biggest fights on Monday night was over whether Mitt Romney supported the auto bailout. Obama said he didn’t. Romney said he did. The relevant truth is that the bailout was a disaster for taxpayers, who, if the government divested now, would lose $25 billion. The bailout, which Romney correctly noted started under President Bush, probably did save some jobs in Ohio and Michigan, but those jobs likely came at the expense of jobs in automakers based in places such as Tennessee, North Carolina, and Indiana, where companies such as Toyota, Nissan, and Mercedes Benz have manufacturing plants.

Both candidates need to learn that cronyism is not capitalism. Bailouts may benefit business, lobbyists, and politicians, but their cost is borne by taxpayers, consumers, and the economy as a whole.

I Love Teachers, Too. When it came to increased-spending promises, no area could match education. Romney could hardly contain his enthusiasm for education spending, although he did at least suggest that the federal government should not be directly hiring teachers. Still, from college aid to standardized testing, Romney repeatedly embraced such a big government role in education that it’s hard to believe that Republicans used to call for abolishing the Department of Education. President Obama, on the other hand, does want the federal government to spend on hiring more teachers. He seemed to react with horror at the very idea that the federal government might spend less on some education program somewhere.

Both candidates were correct to point out that improving our education system is crucial to America’s economic competitiveness. But there is no evidence at all that increasing education spending or hiring more teachers will improve education outcomes. Government spending on education has increased by half over the past 15 years without any noticeable improvement in test scores or graduation rates. At the same time, the student-to-teacher ratio at public schools has declined by 11 percent, again with no improvement in outcomes. Given this track record, the bipartisan support for more education spending represents either the triumph of hope over experience, or just pure pandering. (Governor Romney, though, does get points for making a brief nod to parental choice, even if he slid by it so fast that no one noticed.)

The Dogs That Didn’t Bark. As bad as our $16 trillion national debt is, it pales in comparison to the estimated $57–$111 trillion in unfunded liabilities facing our entitlement programs, primarily Medicare and Social Security. Neither candidate has put forward a serious proposal for reforming these programs. Social Security, which is $22 trillion in the red, got fewer than 300 words over three debates, and most of this was Governor Romney’s pointing out the president’s failure to address Social Security reform in his first term. When the candidates did get around to discussing Medicare, it was primarily to attack each other for proposing cuts to the program.

Of course, President Obama has a four-year track record that pretty clearly demonstrates his belief in virtually unlimited government. Romney’s support for big government, on the other hand, may just be insincere, tacking to the middle for political reasons. But on the other hand, Romney might actually be the moderate Massachusetts governor who earned a gentleman’s “C” on the Cato Institute’s Governors’ Report Card for taxes and spending during his time in office.

President Obama has set the bar so low that Romney can probably clear and earn the votes of most fiscal conservatives. But anyone expecting a much smaller, less costly, less intrusive government over the next four years probably shouldn’t hold their breath.

— Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution.


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