The Next President's Due Bill
Every so often, reality has to intrude on politics. The candidates, of course, resent it and do their damnedest to avoid it. And those of us who make a living reporting politics are equally determined not to let the harsh truths of the outside world impinge on the "game" being played out on the campaign trail.
Last week, just as everyone was settling in to weigh the delightful prospect of a new administration and a new Congress -- reformers all, to hear them tell it -- a cold-water dash of realism smacked us in the face.
This one was administered by the killjoys at the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), who announced that the next president, whoever he is, will probably inherit a budget that is at least $500 billion out of balance -- a record sum that will limit his ability to do any of the wonderful things being promised daily in the upbeat rhetoric of the campaign.
Barack Obama and John McCain scarcely blinked at the news; I didn't really expect them to do anything more. The last thing candidates want to admit is that, if they win, they will be unable to deliver the goodies they have promised the voters.
Both of them are telling their audiences that they will outdo the Bush administration in every respect. They will not only bring fundamental change to Washington but deliver the big goals everyone craves -- peace and enhanced national respect abroad, energy independence, more jobs, affordable health care, a cleaner environment, improved schools and, of course, lower taxes.
You will not hear them admit that, before they do any of those things, they will have to pay a gigantic annual interest bill on the rapidly expanding national debt -- or else our foreign creditors will stop lending us the money to pay our bills.
No one is going to be elected on the promise that he will satisfy the bankers in Shanghai and the money managers in Moscow.
But that is the reality. Our country has so thoroughly abandoned any pretense of fiscal prudence, accumulating public and private debt at a breakneck pace, that no president can avoid asking: How do I keep our creditors at bay?
If this were a rational world, that question would be at the top of the agenda for the first presidential debate, for it will be inescapable when the work of governing begins in earnest in January.
It is not being asked now, because it is in no one's interest to raise it -- not Obama's and not McCain's, for they have no easy answers, and not the media's, because we, too, hate to be the jerks who spoil the party by asking who's paying for the booze.
But trust me, the question will have to be asked in 2009, if not in 2008. The events that have dominated the economic news -- soaring unemployment, bankruptcy and foreclosure rates; government bailouts of giant financial firms -- are not accidental occurrences. They are symptoms of a systemic breakdown marked by easy credit, lax spending discipline and a toxic aversion to taxing ourselves enough to pay our bills.
The fine print in the CBO report measures the course of our reckless imprudence. The projected deficit is almost triple the size of last year's flow of red ink. In January, the deficit for this year was estimated at "only" $219 billion, and both Bush and the Democratic Congress claimed that we were on our way to a balanced budget in another three years.
More mythmaking. The reality: A slowing economy sapped federal revenue. An "economic stimulus" bill boosted spending, while Iraq and Afghanistan continued to absorb more billions. In the face of that, Bush continues to call for more extended tax cuts, and Democrats, playing along with the polls, are poised to go along.
It's unfair in a way that those who will move into new positions on Pennsylvania Avenue in January should bear the consequences of the decisions made or avoided by their predecessors. But that is the reality; economic forces do not obey election timetables.
And reality does intrude, no matter how much the politicians try to deny it.