What to really ask of presidential candidates

Beyond moon colonies and posturing about tuition, the presidential candidates must address specific questions about our nation's future. That should happen after the GOP race is decided, perhaps in Florida. 

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Beyond moon colonies and posturing about tuition, the presidential candidates must address specific questions about our nation's future. That should happen after the GOP race is decided, perhaps in Florida. 

While national candidates, and media covering them, have kept their eyes on the November political prize, ordinary citizens would do well to maintain their focus on policy decisions taking place here and now, which are vital to their futures.

Media attention understandably has been paid to the Romney-Gingrich battle for the Republican presidential nomination, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's more grandiose and eccentric proposals (including one for a U.S. moon colony, which in time would have sufficient population to petition for statehood).  Former Sen. Rick Santorum's social-issue views and Rep. Ron Paul's libertarian outlook, which normally would not be noticed, have gotten coverage because of those candidates' continuing presence on GOP debate stages.

Media also have focused on President Barack Obama's State of the Union and other recent proposals, which, by and large, did not address central issues but instead were designed to attract political support from targeted constituencies in the electorate (i.e., voters underwater on their mortgages, college students and their parents, environmentalists favoring alternative energy, etc.). Most would increase federal deficits and debt.

The most puzzling — the Obama counterpart to Gingrich's moon-colony proposal — was Obama's threat to withhold federal funds from colleges whose tuitions he regarded as too high. Presidents of Washington's three largest public universities wasted no time in blasting it.

Meantime, the real action was taking place on Capitol Hill where, on Saturday (Jan. 27), the federal debt ceiling was increased to $16.4 trillion, up $1.2 trillion.  The increase would put debt at about 60 percent of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and is expected to last through the end of this election year, at which time it will have to raised again.

The only credible ways to dent this debt burden are to generate strong economic growth, thus increasing tax revenues; to reduce the massive "tax expenditures" (i.e., loopholes, deductions, and subsidies) benefiting favored activities; and to put Social Security and Medicare on sound long-term financial footing.  Cuts already are being made in Defense and discretionary domestic spending.

Yet neither Obama nor the Republican presidential candidates have been talking in specific rather than general terms about their plans to do so.  As typical in an election year, Democrats are talking about "protecting our senior citizens" while Republicans talk of "maintaining a defense establishment second to none."   In the Republican debates, discussion has centered too greatly on the comparative wealth of the candidates and on other issues unrelated either to economic revival or national security — the two largest issues for voters in November.

We'll have to live with this until the Republican presidential-nominating race is decided.  (That could happen as soon as Tuesday night, if former Massachesetts Gov. Mitt Romney wins Florida decisively, or as late as this summer's GOP national convention).  Then an Obama-GOP nominee debate can begin in which the central issues quickly come to the foreground.

Economic growth — issue No. 1 — is gradually coming back in the United States.  But the Federal Reserve still fears a fallback and has signaled publicly its intention to keep interest rates at rock bottom through 2014.  And our slow economic crawlback is not creating the jobs it should.

Employers, concerned about the global economy and U.S. post-election economic policy, are deferring hiring decisions until they get a better sense of the future climate. That means the national candidates must satisfy them (and us) on such questions as these:

What are your specific tax, trade, regulatory and other proposals to regenerate U.S. economic growth and employment?

Since growth alone will not seriously dent our long-term debt burden, what are your specific proposals to reduce spending on the Big Three: tax expenditures, Social Security, Medicare?

We will get real answers only if we demand them.   The weekend lifting of the debt limit, largely unnoted,  should remind us to do that.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.