GOP candidates take a vow of candor, but skirt the details

September 12, 2011

Again and again, the Republican candidates for president declared during Monday’s debate that the time has come to tell it straight. Within limits, that is.

“We have not had the courage to stand up and look Americans in the face,” Texas Gov. and GOP front-runner Rick Perry said when he was asked about Social Security. “It has been called a Ponzi scheme by many people long before me. But no one’s had the courage to stand up and say, here is how we’re going to reform it.”

Nor did Perry.

Austerity is the watchword in Washington these days — in no small part because the tea party groups, which made up the cheering audience for the debate, have demanded it. But if the GOP candidates were united in anything, it might have been summed up this way: All gain and no pain.

For all their promises to put the nation’s books back in order, the candidates offered little that would suggest that Americans might actually have to give anything up to do it.

Instead, they repeatedly insisted that economic growth could take care of the problem or that — in the hoariest of all political claims — rooting out waste is the answer.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, struggling to regain the lead he once enjoyed in the polls, promised again to cap federal spending at 20 percent of gross domestic product. But he offered no specifics as to what would have to go.

Instead, Romney noted: “There’s a second part to balancing the budget, and that’s growing the economy again.”

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich dismissed a suggestion that the retirement age might need to be raised to save Social Security — or even that Americans should expect less from any other entitlement program.

“That’s just a Washington mythology,” Gingrich said. “And anybody who knows anything about the federal government knows that there’s such an enormous volume of waste, that if you simply had a serious, all-out effort to modernize the federal government, you would have hundreds of billions of dollars of savings falling off.”

Nor did any of them see any need to repeal or even trim one of the most expansive new federal programs of the past decade — the addition of a prescription drug plan to Medicare.

Perry called it “a $17 trillion hole that we have in our budget we’ve got to deal with. And I think that’s the issue of: How do you find the savings and still deliver the services?”

The Texas governor suggested that his approach would be to reorganize the agencies that provide the benefit.

“In the state of Texas, we combined a substantial amount of our health and human services from 10 down to five agencies. We put an Office of Inspector General into place, and we saved over $5.3 billion . . . just by finding the waste and the fraud in Texas state government,” Perry said. “I’m thinking there might be more waste and fraud in the federal government than even there is in the Texas government.”

At another point, when asked whether tax cuts would have to be balanced with spending cuts, Perry declared: “People are tired of spending money we don’t have on programs we don’t want.”

But he didn’t name any of those programs.

If the candidates weren’t offering any painful specifics, it wasn’t because they weren’t being asked — including by tea party members, who peppered them with questions from the audience and from remote sites throughout the country.

One woman from an Orange Park, Fla., tea party chapter noted: “Health insurance is expensive because health care is expensive. What is your plan to reduce the cost of health care so that our insurance premiums and other related costs can also be reduced?”

“First, repeal Obamacare in its entirety,” said former Godfather’s Pizza chief executive Herman Cain.

That was a guaranteed applause line in an audience whose biggest grievance against the current president is the national health-care law he got passed through a Democratic Congress.

But repeal of the law would do little to address current costs, given that most of its provisions are years away from going into effect.

Cain also promised greater deductibility of health-care costs, tort reform and “market-driven, patient-centered reforms.” What he didn’t suggest is that anyone would ever be told no on any treatment they might want.

At one point, it appeared that Rep. Michele Bachmann was actually going to raise the prospect of sacrifice.

“For years, politicians have run on the idea that government is going to buy people more stuff and that the federal government would be taking care of people’s prescription drugs, their retirement, their health care, their housing, their food,” she said.

So what might have to go?

“We have to be an ownership society, where individual responsibility, personal responsibility once again becomes the animating American principle,” she said.

Which isn’t quite the same as giving up anything.

Full debate coverage on PostPolitics

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Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.
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