Truth Serum on The Trail

By Robert J. Samuelson
Wednesday, May 14, 2008

It's been a blast, this presidential campaign. A great story, full of drama. But no one should think it's been honest. With the possible exception of Iraq -- a matter that compels candidates to face real issues -- the campaign has been an exercise in mass merchandising. Candidates make alluring promises (to "fix the economy," "defeat special interests" or "achieve energy independence") and offer freebies to voters (more tax cuts, health care, college aid). Complete the sale: That's the point.

There's a vast gap between the country's problems and the candidates' agendas and rhetoric. The candidates dissemble because they believe that Americans don't want the truth. It would be too upsetting.

They're probably right. Let's imagine what a candidate inoculated with truth serum might say. This gauges the distance between what Sens. Clinton, Obama and McCain are saying and what they should be saying. Here's the abbreviated stump speech:

"Fellow Americans, I know you worry about the economy. So do I. But, frankly, if you elect me, I won't do much about it. It's a $14 trillion economy. Every three months, 7 million Americans change jobs. Presidents aren't powerful enough to steer this colossus. Sure, we can pass 'stimulus' programs, but if we overdo it -- as we did in the 1970s -- we will make the economy worse. Believe me, presidents would prevent recessions if they could.

"What we can do is preserve an economic climate that favors long-term growth. That means holding down the tax burden to maintain incentives for work and investments. We're already running a $400 billion or so deficit; some broad-based tax increases may be needed. This will disappoint conservatives, who think no one should pay taxes, and liberals, who think only the rich should pay them. But we must also cut spending, because, unless we do, the future tax increases will be crushing.

"Of necessity, spending cuts should focus on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. These programs are projected to grow from about 45 percent of the present budget to 70 percent over a couple of decades. Paying for that exclusively with taxes would be devastating for the economy and our children. Paying exclusively by cutting other programs would gut vital government services. I admit that raising eligibility ages for baby boomers and cutting some benefits are unfair. People should have received more warning. But our politicians have so dawdled that there's no warning time left.

"We've also dawdled on energy. No one likes $125-a-barrel oil. Last year, we paid an average price of $64 a barrel for imports. Some blame the oil companies, but the truth is that we're all to blame. Americans like cheap gasoline and big vehicles. Nothing was done to dampen consumption. Meanwhile, Congress restricted new oil and gas exploration on environmental grounds. So, demand rose and supply fell. In 1985, we imported 4 million barrels of oil a day; now that's 12 million.

" 'Energy independence' is a fraud. We simply use too much foreign oil. All we can do is limit our dependence by shifting to more-efficient vehicles and increasing domestic production. But these measures will take years and have only modest effects. The same is true of global warming. Without major technological breakthroughs, making big cuts in greenhouse gases will be impossible.

"Finally, let's discuss poverty. Everyone's against it, but hardly anyone admits that most of the increase in the past 15 years reflects immigration -- new immigrants or children of recent immigrants. Unless we stop poor people from coming across our Southern border, legally and illegally, we won't reduce poverty. Period. That doesn't mean we should try to expel the 12 million illegal immigrants already here -- an impossible and morally dubious task. Many families have been here for years; many have American children. We need a pragmatic accommodation: assimilate most people now here; shift future immigration to the highly skilled.

"Vote for me. I'll tell the truth."

Of course, our hapless candidate would be dismissed as misinformed, offensive, possibly racist and, of course, unelectable. People say they value candor, but in practice they don't. Almost all our major national problems require patience: the capacity to take somewhat painful actions now to avoid greater future pain. In an ideal world, elections would help move public opinion toward such policies.

But that doesn't happen. Politics is mostly about immediate gratification -- about offering up convenient scapegoats and instant solutions for voters' complaints, even if the villains and promises are often false. We in the media bless this process by treating much of the self-serving rhetoric with undeserved seriousness. Is it any wonder that our genuine problems persist year after year and, in the end, foster public cynicism?

© 2008 The Washington Post Company