WASHINGTON — On the morning after last week’s vice presidential debate, Charles O. Jones, the University of Wisconsin political scientist and scholar of the presidency, remarked that the nation had witnessed "a great civic event," a civil, substantive discussion of serious policy matters between two highly competent public officials, Joe Lieberman and Dick Cheney.
In fact, Jones said, "we are having a good election, something you don’t often get in good times." Contrast the contest being waged by Al Gore and George W. Bush, he went on, with the last race conducted in a healthy economy and at a time when no incumbent president was on the ballot.
That would be 1988, when the father of the current Republican nominee squared off, as vice president, against Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. If the winning campaign of 1988 is remembered at all, the enduring images are the flag factories the elder George Bush visited in an implicit challenge to Dukakis’ patriotism and the Willie Horton ads his supporters aired. And the hapless Democratic effort was symbolized by Dukakis’ tank ride and his lame, emotionless answer to Bernard Shaw’s question about how he would respond if someone raped and murdered Kitty Dukakis.
We’ve come a long way from that, with the four nominees for president and vice president arguing about such genuinely important topics as defense, education, Social Security and health care.
But before we get too giddy in celebrating our good fortune, let it be noted that historians are almost certain to remark on the purposeful myopia of the candidates in this first election of the new millennium, their deliberate refusal to acknowledge and discuss one of the biggest realities of our national life: The glorious federal budget surpluses they are happily parceling out for their favorite programs and tax cuts are a short-term phenomenon, soon to be followed by crippling deficits, unless we make some hard choices in the next few years.
In this respect, the 2000 campaign is reminiscent of 1988 — but worse. In that year, Dukakis and the elder Bush avoided discussing the savings and loan crisis both of them knew was around the corner. The reason: There were no easy answers, just bad news and an expensive bailout in store.
What we now confront is much, much bigger than the savings and loan bailout. Its dimensions were outlined last week in a report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) — a report which did not make the front page of any of the papers I read and which was ignored entirely by most of the TV news shows.
Here’s what it said: Assuming that the new president uses the expected surplus in Social Security of $2.4 trillion over the next 10 years to pay down the national debt, as Gore and Bush say they will do, the government may be able to balance its books until about 2020.
But then the retirement and health care costs of the huge baby boom generation and the shrinkage in the number of Americans working and paying taxes will once again create a serious imbalance — and push us back into debt.
In the estimate of the CBO, "If the nation’s leaders do not change current policies to eliminate that imbalance, federal deficits are likely to reappear and eventually drive federal debt to unsustainable levels." A chart accompanying the report shows the public debt in 2040 rising to 60 percent of the estimated size of that year’s economy — creating a burden on the next generation of Americans half again as large as the accumulated debt of the past is on us.
As Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post noted in his news story, "The report underscores how campaign rhetoric has become increasingly separated from the budget reality that will face the next president." While Bush pushes his trillion-dollar tax cut and tries to keep up with Gore’s promises of new prescription drug benefits, 100,000 teachers and 50,000 cops, neither one is preparing the public for the steps that are needed to rein in runaway health care costs — the largest single force driving us back into deficits.
By 2040, according to the best available data, the percentage of Americans over 65 will rise from 13 percent to almost 21 percent. The share of working-age Americans, between 20 and 64, will decline by 3 points to slightly over 55 percent. The ratio of workers to retirees will drop from almost 5 to 1 down to less than 3 to 1. Unless we begin now to reorganize our dysfunctional health care system and take steps to rationalize provisions for retirement income, the demographic wave will sink us.
Someone has to force the candidates to confront that reality.
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