Do We Need an Election to Fix the Deficit?

I spent this morning at one of those Washington institutions: the budget roundtable. Today’s (at the Aspen Institute) gave me a chance to pose a question in exchange for my muffin:  Should Washington await the results of the 2012 election before reaching a cosmic budget agreement?

It will, of course. The odds that President Obama and Congress will reach across the gaping fiscal divide anytime soon are vanishingly small. But does it even make sense for lawmakers to agree to what would be a profound change in the relationship between government and the people without first having an election?

Here is why they should wait…and why they should not.

Why we need an election:

Education: The public desperately needs to learn about the real consequences of big deficits and what it would take to reduce them. Polls show that people overestimate the cost savings of cutting foreign aid and “waste, fraud, and abuse.” They also overestimate the financial problems of Social Security and grossly misunderstand the nature of Medicare. And they are completely mystified about the workings of the tax law. What better forum to highlight all of these issues than a political campaign?  

Consensus building: Today, the public is not prepared to either sacrifice benefits or pay higher taxes to reduce the deficit. A December 2010 Pew poll reported that only two deficit reduction ideas—freezing salaries for federal workers and raising Social Security taxes for high-earners– enjoyed majority support.  Do Americans really want to cut the deficit, and how? That’s what elections should be about.  

The 1994 presidential race is an interesting case study. Before that campaign, there was little public support for budget cutting. But key swing voters were moved by Ross Perot’s ceaseless focus on the deficit, according to political scientist James Shoch. Exit polls that year showed that more than half of all voters—and two-thirds of Perot voters–saw deficit reduction as the single most important issue. While Bill Clinton didn’t campaign on deficits (in fact, he ran on new public investment) he quickly flipped after the election—in part because of that change in public mood generated by Perot.     

Here is why we should not wait for the election to address deficit reduction:

Promises. Promises. Candidates have an unfortunate tendency to make promises in political campaigns. And those vows make it harder, not easier, to reach the kind of political compromise necessary to reduce the deficit. A GOP candidate inevitably will be forced to take “the pledge” to never, ever raise taxes. President Obama will be pushed by the left to “protect” Social Security and Medicare. And reversing those promises can be fatal. The story of President George H.W. Bush’s “read my lips” vow to not raise taxes and his subsequent abandonment of that pledge and election defeat is built into the DNA of all pols. Thus, there is no worse forum to highlight tough issues than a political campaign.  

The Noise. In theory, it sounds great: Obama lays out his vision of gvernment in an era of fiscal constraint. The GOP challenger does the same. An informed electorate chooses. Flags waive. Birds sing. We all hum America the Beautiful.

But what idiot thinks there will be a serious discussion of fiscal policy—or anything else—in 2012? Modern elections are decided on personality and unpredictable and ultimately irrelevant issues (Did Hillary cry? What about Rev. Wright?) Serious policy debates, such as they are, usually focus on topics that have little to do with the reality of governing.  For example, Obama’s promise to close the prison at Guantanamo was far more important to many Democrats than his (rather modest) health reform plan. A real debate about tax expenditures? Please.

Serious deficit reduction will await the 2012 election results. I hope the campaign will clarify matters, but I’m not counting on it.