Can the presidential candidates please talk about our debt crisis?

Can the presidential candidates please talk about our debt crisis?
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The sound and fury of the most recent Democratic presidential debate still rings loudly. The candidates held forth on guns, trade, abortion, immigration, and spending priorities, among other issues. The candidates also went hard at each other, and most of the commentary has focused around the eternal questions of who won and who lost, until the next news cycle revisits these same questions with maybe slightly different answers.

In addition to the first three debates, the public also endured a lengthy gabfest on climate change. But there has been no discussion of the biggest issue facing the country, namely our financial health, federal deficit, national debt, and the sustainability of entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare. For his part, President TrumpDonald John TrumpKaine: Obama called Trump a 'fascist' during 2016 campaign Kaine: GOP senators should 'at least' treat Trump trial with seriousness of traffic court Louise Linton, wife of Mnuchin, deletes Instagram post in support of Greta Thunberg MORE has pledged to address the deficit, but not unless he wins a second term.

The deficit monster is out of control, and both parties bear responsibility. Since 2009, the national debt has increased from around $10 trillion to more than $20 trillion in only 12 years, under Republican and Democratic administrations. After falling earlier this decade, annual deficits are creeping above $1 trillion for the next several years. Despite a strong economy, the national debt as a share of gross domestic product will grow from 78 percent today to more than 93 percent in the next decade.


It is true that deficits and debt are lagging economic stats and may not affect growth in the short term, which is one reason why the economy remains strong. In the long term, however, dramatic effects are inevitable. More money will eventually be needed to service the annual interest payments for past spending rather than for addressing future needs. Taxes will rise to keep the payments from growing even larger. Most ominously, critical entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare will see benefit reductions unless they are reformed to handle the flood of retirees in the next 20 years. It is not difficult to understand why no one wants to discuss this issue.

First, politicians would rather talk about giving away more for free than paying for what we are already receiving. What is more fun? Fixing the Social Security imbalance or offering free college tuition, student loan forgiveness, and cheaper medical care at no additional cost to anyone save the top 1 percent of wage earners? Who would turn down another helping of cake and ice cream, especially when it is free? But these promises are impossible to fulfill and can only lead to another round of public alienation and cynicism about government and politics.

Second, addressing fiscal issues requires involvement and participation from all Americans since their benefits and tax rates will all be affected. The populist impulse is always to reject “shades of gray” compromise solutions in favor of defending the “most popular” solution, which in this case is the status quo. Some even propose increasing benefits. There are calls to reduce the payroll tax, which funds entitlement benefits. Such a move would weaken the program and bring our day of reckoning closer. This is a hard issue because the slogans must surrender to the numbers.

Third, speaking of slogans, American politics has become just that. “Medicare for All,” “America First,” and “Free College” are just a few that dominate our current political debate. Campaigns today operate almost solely on turning out the base rather than broadening the base. The result is more and more money spent to influence fewer and fewer voters, especially low propensity voters from the left and right of the ideological spectrum. Sloganeering rather than issue discussion is more likely to interest voters whose lower participation is due to less interest.

This fiscal topic is not fun, but it is necessary. Perhaps one of the upcoming debate sponsors will actually suggest a presidential debate on addressing our public finances and how to fund our critical priorities in the coming decades. That would indeed be a debate worth having.

Frank Donatelli served as an assistant for political affairs to President Reagan and as deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee during the 2008 presidential campaign of John McCain. He is now executive vice president and director at McGuire Woods Consulting.