The missing issue in the presidential campaign


President Obama, left, and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. (AP/AP)
Dan Balz
Chief correspondent May 19, 2012

Big issues are on the table as President Obama and Republican Mitt Romney begin the general election campaign: jobs and the economy, the future of health care, taxes, spending, the size and scope of government. What is missing is any serious discussion of the one question that overrides all others: Can Washington govern?

The symbol of the breakdown is the ongoing stalemate over the economy and the country’s fiscal problems. The next showdown could come during a lame-duck session after the November election, when the George W. Bush tax cuts are due to expire and the big across-the-board spending cuts — agreed to last year after multiple breakdowns in negotiations — are scheduled to take effect.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent. View Archive

Or that showdown could be delayed by a series of maneuvers designed, once again, to buy time and save face. Another game of chicken over the debt ceiling probably won’t take place until sometime early next year, but House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) set off alarms last week by hinting at another round of brinksmanship.

This weekend’s Group of Eight meetings underscore the consequences of governments’ failures to deal effectively with their economic problems in ways that can gain public support. Still, at the start of the general election campaign, there appears to be a disconnect between what everyone knows is coming after the election and what is being done to bring about a better outcome.

Each party looks to the elections as a moment when voters will repudiate the other side and provide a mandate to the winner to implement its agenda. Three wave elections in a row, two won by the Democrats and the third by the Republicans, should be enough to show the limitations of that all-or-nothing thinking. How will the two candidates use the election to build support for real solutions?

Romney raised the debt issue as he campaigned around the country last week, appearing with a debt clock ticking away in the background. Hot metaphors marked an appearance in Iowa as he talked about “a prairie fire of debt” and pledged to lead the country out of “the spending and debt inferno.”

Romney is preaching to the choir in the Republican base: Congressional Republicans, prodded by tea party freshmen in the House, have taken an unyielding no-taxes position in deficit negotiations, and Romney has followed their lead. The former Massachusetts governor also has said he will not consider raising taxes to deal with the deficit. In fact, he would cut them dramatically.

On these issues, his party has defined him more than he has defined his party.

Though he often talks about how he worked with Democrats in the Massachusetts legislature, there is nothing in Romney’s campaign platform to suggest that, as president, he would try to challenge the hard-liners in his party. Given some of the problems he had with very conservative voters during the primaries, it is not surprising that he is sticking to the party line.

Romney has embraced the budget blueprint put forward by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), a plan that has yet to win any real popular support. He is on record opposing a purely hypothetical budget deal that was raised by Fox News anchor Bret Baier in a GOP debate last year whose terms would call for $10 in spending cuts for every dollar in new revenue.

In terms of dealing with the deficit, Obama has public opinion on his side, at least broadly, but he faces questions about the depth of his leadership. Every group of note that has studied the issue of deficits, spending and entitlements, most prominently the report by the commission headed by former Republican senator Alan Simpson and former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles, has concluded that a solution must include significant spending cuts and some new revenue. The public agrees.

Obama also favors higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans, another position that enjoys significant popular support, even if it falls far short of solving the country’s long-term fiscal problem.

Obama has argued that he was prepared to make a deal with Boehner that would have included new revenue, spending cuts and some entitlement reforms that would have caused heartburn in his base.

The president believes that he could have won support from congressional Democrats for the changes he was negotiating. That remains hypothetical; Obama never had to put it to the test — and is doing little in the election to prepare for that possibility.

Last year’s negotiations have been played and replayed in a series of articles and books that have attempted to sort out who bears the blame for the breakdown. Longtime congressional scholars Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute put the fault squarely on the Republicans in their new book, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.” They have taken considerable heat for their conclusions.

The president and White House officials are also eager to say the stalemate is the Republicans’ responsibility, but they are mindful that last summer’s breakdown damaged the president as well as the GOP. A fundamental part of Obama’s message four years ago was the claim that he would change the way Washington works, an aspiration he has been unable to meet.

He may not be the principal cause of the stalemate, but voters may wonder whether he has a solution. They expect leaders to lead. Though he was in serious negotiations with Boehner a year ago, Obama has drawn criticism for failing to offer more forceful leadership. He established the Simpson-Bowles commission but declined opportunities at key moments to push and prod for its consideration and enactment.

Obama also knows that the key to his reelection rests on his ability to build public confidence in his leadership on the economy and to discredit Romney on that issue. He also needs a series of monthly jobs reports that look better than the last two.

Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) has been in the thick of the battle over the debt and deficits as a member of the Gang of Six that produced a bipartisan plan of its own in the midst of the final round of negotiations between Obama and Boehner last summer. With others, he is continuing to try to build support when the next opportunity arises.

Warner called the 2010 election “an all-anger” referendum on Washington. Looking ahead to November, he said, “This has got to be a ‘fix-it’ election.” He sees the political system and the institutions of government still stacked against those who seek compromise, but something must be done to change the equation, he said.

“For those of us who have been hired in elective leadership,” he told me on Friday, “this is our moment. . . . We’re going to have to have that showdown.”

Will the presidential campaign do anything to advance solutions to these problems or merely result in more finger-pointing and the deepening of divisions that have prevented Congress and the president from dealing with the problem? That is a question for both the president and the presumptive Republican nominee.

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