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Running on Sweet Nothings

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By David Ignatius
Thursday, April 24, 2008; 12:00 AM

Maybe it's in the nature of politics to sugarcoat reality, but this year's political campaign is becoming an escape to Fantasy Island, rather than a real exploration of the serious problems facing the United States.

Candidates in both parties are implying that there are easy answers to what's ailing the country, at home and abroad. But there aren't. And unless Democrats and Republicans start talking more honestly, they will almost guarantee a post-inauguration crackup, when an angry public realizes it has been sold false promises by the new president about quick fixes that don't exist.

Ducking problems is a quadrennial ritual in America, you could argue. But rarely have the country's difficulties been so acute or the need for real debate so obvious. In listening to these candidates, the only solace is that they can't possibly mean what they say.

The prime example of this quick-fix trap is Iraq. John McCain's version of the easy answer is military victory. He says the U.S. troop surge is working, and he implies that if we just stay the course, we will produce a stable, democratic Iraq that will be a reliable American ally like South Korea. Unfortunately, that prognosis is almost certainly false.

The Democratic version is the promise by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama that we can end the Iraq nightmare by pulling out U.S. troops. They argue that once American soldiers start coming home, the Iraqis will finally make the tough decisions and take responsibility for their country. Here again, the chance of this happening is close to zero.

A real Iraq debate would begin by recognizing that however mistaken the war may have been, it won't be an easy mistake to fix. When Obama promises to bring the troops home no matter what happens on the ground, or McCain thunders that it's "reckless and irresponsible" even to discuss troop withdrawal, those statements obscure the excruciatingly hard choices the next president will have to make.

The same pie-in-the-sky talk clouds discussion of the economy. Listening to McCain, you would think all we need are more tax cuts. This Republican nostrum was tired before George W. Bush began rolling up massive deficits, but today it's downright irresponsible. We are a country that consumes too much, saves too little, and has to borrow massively from abroad to finance its fiscal and trade deficits. The weak dollar is a measure in part of this overstimulated economy. Sad to see McCain, who once seemed to mean it when he talked about his "Straight Talk Express," buy into the tax-cut panacea.

The Democrats sometimes seem to have thrown economic good sense out the window, too. Obama and Clinton have both demonized free trade in their efforts to win union votes in Rust Belt states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania. They talk as if rewriting NAFTA will restore manufacturing to its old dominance. That just ain't so.

A more honest pitch would focus on the competitive realities of the global economy -- and the need for the government to help workers get the training and job skills they will need.

There are other political mantras this campaign year that obscure the real choices ahead. The clamor for a national bailout of victims of subprime lending masks the fact that we are in the middle of a sustained downturn in the housing market. Proposals for energy independence hide some of the decisions ahead: whether to build more refineries; whether to encourage more nuclear power; whether a reduction in $100-a-barrel oil is likely, or even desirable. The country might get motivated to sacrifice for programs that address global warming or reduce energy consumption. But sacrifice is a word you don't hear in this campaign year.

And then there are the big, scary, imponderable issues: the potential long-term insolvency of Social Security and Medicare and the need to reduce entitlement spending; the impasse on immigration policy; the increasing inequality in the distribution of income, which is causing extremes of wealth and poverty that should make us all uncomfortable.

My guess is that the American public would respond favorably to a politician who dared to talk about the painful choices the country faces. Can these three candidates stop promising easy answers and start telling the truth about what's ahead?

The writer is co-host of PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.


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