Truth-telling a casualty in presidential campaign

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The gap is most apparent on Medicare. Christie confidently declared that Republicans trust seniors’ willingness to sacrifice for their grandchildren in confronting entitlement reform. Paul Ryan’s reputation as a proposer of bold changes to the program seemed to signal that the Republican ticket would embrace this message. But he and Romney have instead aggressively pivoted to represent themselves as defenders of high Medicare spending against Obama’s hurtful cuts, and promise that they will not touch Medicare for Americans over 55. Specifics about cost control are conspicuously absent.

For all the talk of how the GOP is ready to ask Americans to sacrifice, the Republican candidates have been unwilling to give details about what hard choices they support (with the possible exception of making cuts to Medicaid). Ryan’s budgets have been distressingly thin on specific ways to broaden the tax base to pay for marginal rate cuts that have always been front and center. Early in the process, such vagueness can be forgiven; but by now it seems only fair to expect specific and credible identification of loopholes to close or spending to cut, expectations which Romney/Ryan have resisted with almost incredible totality. For those hoping to hear about the policies a Republican administration would champion, Romney’s speech had nothing to offer.

In 1976, Wall Street Journal writer and future Reagan adviser Jude Wanniski began pushing the “Two Santa Claus Theory,” which said that if Democrats were the Santa Claus of government spending, Republicans would have to become the Santa Claus of tax cuts to compete. By and large, Republicans have heeded this advice with reckless abandon through my entire lifetime. Today, neither party shows willingness to deliver coal instead of presents, with minor exceptions: Democrats for the rich, Republicans for the poor. Christie purported to demand the message of the anti-Santa for the broad middle class: sorry, it isn’t fair, but you are going to get less from the government than you thought.

But at the Republican convention, such remarks remained at the level of partisan-friendly abstractions: unions must get real, entitlements and tax expenditures must shrink in unspecified ways. Christie deserves credit for his famous willingness to tell firefighters and teachers in New Jersey that they must pay more toward their pensions, which came with real political risks. But bold leadership would mean telling the GOP faithful that their insistence that taxes never rise is sheer lunacy; that everyone will have to pay more, even the rich; and that “cutting entitlements” means that Medicare must control costs for everyone, not just Americans under 55.

Unfortunately, the problem is not entirely a Republican one. Republicans’ math is more offensively dependent on “magic asterisks,” but so far President Obama is not distinguishing himself for bold truth-telling on the campaign trail, styling himself as a tax cutter (for everyone except the rich) despite record deficits. One of his most prominent TV spots tells American voters that “asking the wealthy to pay a little more” will allow us to “pay down our debt in a balanced way” while also giving us the chance to “invest in education, manufacturing, and homegrown American energy for good middle class jobs.” That is not a serious pitch. Democrats may be right to reject “austerity now” given the continuing weakness of the economic recovery, but they cannot pretend that the debt problem is for another decade, or portray the “Bush” tax cuts as responsible for our debts while simultaneously trying to extend them indefinitely for all but the highest earners.

Election season may be a bad time to face up to uncomfortable facts. But at the very least, if party leaders of either side are going to insist they are tellers of hard truths, they should do better than serving up warm feelings about America and generic praise of truth-telling. As the campaign goes on, Americans should demand real leadership rather than settling for a hollow imitation of it.

Wallach is a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

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