Politics & Policy

The Question No Candidate Will Answer

(Steveheap/Dreamstime)
It isn’t about ladies on the ten-dollar bill.

I like Jake Tapper, but I already was ready to punch him in the ear over the “let’s you and him fight” structure of the debate questions last week when he abandoned all pretense of adulthood and asked the candidates what they’d like their Secret Service code names to be. It was a low, cringe-inducing moment, and the candidates made it lower and cringier with their answers. (“Trueheart”? “Justice Never Sleeps”? Ergh.) Marco Rubio just barely acquitted himself with “Gator,” but the correct answer was: “That’s a dumb question, Jake, and I am not going to answer it. Now, back to Iran . . .”

Here’s my question, which nobody ever really asks: “Given that 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, and given that we are not going to cut non-defense discretionary spending to zero, 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, what’s it going to be: spending cuts in popular programs, higher taxes, or deficits forever? And before you give your answer, I’d like you all to know that standing behind each of you is a man with a Taser and instructions to use it on the first person whose answer relies on the Growth Fairy — lookin’ at you, Jeb — or the Waste, Fraud, and Abuse Fairy. Go.”

I have had the opportunity to put that question privately to a fairly large number of Republican grandees, including some on that debate stage, and I have never received a truly persuasive answer. If any of the 2016 gang would like to provide one, I am sure that National Review would love to see it.

We conservatives, and the Republican elected officials who are, lest we forget, our only real channel of political action, play a game of double make-believe: They’re smart enough to know what the fiscal realities are, but they’re also smart enough to know that campaigning on those realities is a loser, and we understand their dilemma and don’t expect actual policies to look very much like campaign documents, anyway, so everybody ends up pretending that the choice is between competing non-viable budget plans rather than between wishful thinking and reality. My friend Larry Kudlow sometimes wincingly describes the realist school of budget-hawkery as the “eat your spinach” faction or the “root-canal guys,” and no doubt there is real political wisdom informing that view.

But Uncle Stupid desperately needs a root canal, and no amount of wishful thinking or happy talk about self-financing tax cuts is going to change that.

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The Republican “establishment” — if we believe the rhetoric of the populist Right, it’s a strange sort of “establishment,” one that excludes any number of sitting senators and governors but includes a surprisingly large number of quondam theater critics who are not even members of the Republican party — is in bad odor right now, with the Trumpkin element and the talk-radio ranters and the rest of the circus-monkey Right up in arms, as they perpetually are, over a litany of betrayals and compromises, real and imaginary.

In reality, there is much to be said for the piecemeal, muddle-through approach of congressional Republicans, who have a majority in both houses but not a large enough one to override a presidential veto, which makes inaction their greatest power. In 2011 the Obama-Pelosi-Reid model of government had federal spending up to nearly a quarter of GDP, a level of federal spending more typically associated with 1942 or 1946, when Uncle Sam was engaged in some rather more serious business than subsidizing cowboy-poetry festivals in Harry Reid’s backyard. After the Republican takeover, that figure went below 20 percent of GDP, which is still a great deal higher than is ideal but is within spitting distance of the average federal tax haul. That means that we have a plausible path to a situation in which federal spending is too high but the budget is balanced, rather than a situation in which federal spending is too high and there are persistent deficits. Neither is ideal, but one is better than the other, and responsible adults cannot ignore that.

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That spending reduction (a reduction in GDP terms) has been driven mainly by the sequester, the one successful policy of recent vintage and, therefore, the one policy that everybody hates. Jeb Bush criticized the sequester in the most recent debate, complaining that it prevents spending, which is, of course, what it is there to do. But valuable as the sequester is, it isn’t enough.

#share#Chris Christie has proposed a fairly straightforward policy of means-testing Social Security — reducing benefits when a retired individual’s non–Social Security income surpasses $80,000 a year and zeroing it out at the $200,000-a-year mark. (Jeb Bush has pronounced himself open to means-testing, too.) That isn’t going to balance the budget — it isn’t even going to bring the entitlements ledger into balance — but it would be a meaningful, significant step in the right direction. A broad and deep program of entitlement reform would be a national game-changer, a radical improvement in the credibility of our public finances. Of course, the populist Right, which is in the end barely distinguishable from the populist Left, detests Social Security reform, because it is in reality another welfare-state interest group, one that has convinced itself that all that extravagant New Deal and Great Society statism would be just peachy if it weren’t for all the damned dirty foreigners.

A broad and deep program of entitlement reform would be a national game-changer, a radical improvement in the credibility of our public finances.

Rand Paul is at heart a fiscal realist, one who insists that we must “cut spending in all areas,” though he has gone wobbly on military outlays. And if you read between the stump-speech lines with the right eyes, you can detect a healthy strain of realism in Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, and Scott Walker, with the governors being predictably a bit more hardheaded than the senators. In contrast, Donald Trump is a disconnected fantasist; Mike Huckabee is a content-free populist; neither Ben Carson nor Carly Fiorina has said enough of substance on the subject to make much of a judgment, though Fiorina has some solid plans on spending a great deal of money we don’t have in order to build up the military; John Kasich had a good record on the issue in Congress but thus far in the presidential race refuses to talk about anything other than tax cuts; Jeb Bush is waiting on a bailout from the Growth Fairy.

#related#It’s not that economic growth isn’t important; it’s that there is no magical incantation by which a president may bring it about. Barack Obama surely wishes that the economy were growing more quickly than it is, too, the last four quarters averaging an anemic 2.67 percent real growth; in the first quarter of 2014, the economy actually contracted, threatening a return to outright recession. Better economic policies should produce better growth, but that’s a crooked line, and the timeline is unpredictable.

I don’t expect the GOP contenders to campaign on pain, but I do expect them to sail close enough to the shores of reality that dry land is always within sight. Instead, the temptation is to proceed as though we can have massively expanded military spending, tax cuts, no unpopular entitlement reductions, and a balanced budget.

The Republican who sails under that flag will deserve a very special code name, one that is unprintable in this space.

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