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Both parties fall prey to make-believe politics

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By Robert J. Samuelson
Monday, March 1, 2010

There is a make-believe quality to modern American politics: People -- and this applies across the political spectrum -- say things that are stupid, misleading or unattainable and think (or pretend) that these very same things are desirable, candid and realistic. A disconnect between the language of politics and the nation's actual problems is growing. The politics of the budget offer a splendid example.

On the right, we have conservatives clamoring for tax cuts when, as a practical matter, today's massive budget deficits preclude permanent new tax cuts. With present policies and a decent economic recovery, the federal government could easily spend $12 trillion more than it collects in taxes from 2009 to 2020, reckons the Congressional Budget Office. So before reducing taxes, the tax-cut advocates need to identify hundreds of billions of annual spending reductions -- or accept huge and hazardous annual deficits. Naturally, a comprehensive list of spending cuts is nowhere in sight.

On the left, President Obama and Democrats have spent the past year arguing that, despite the government's massive deficits and overspending, they can responsibly propose even more spending. Future deficits are to be ignored (present deficits, to be sure, partially reflect the economic slump). The proposal is "responsible" because it's "paid for" through new taxes and spending cuts. Even if these financing sources were completely believable (they aren't), the logic is that the government can undertake new spending before dealing with the consequences of old spending. Of course, most households and businesses can't do this.

Politicians can, because it's all make-believe. They pretend to deal with budget deficits when they aren't. Just recently, the Democratic Congress passed a new version of the "pay-go" budget rule. Under pay-as-you-go rules, if Congress cuts taxes or increases spending beyond present policies, it must find offsets by raising taxes or cutting spending elsewhere. This seems a prudent discipline, and Obama bragged about being "responsible." What he didn't say is that this new pay-go contains huge exceptions. These include the renewal of most of the Bush tax cuts, revisions of the alternative minimum tax, higher Medicare reimbursements for doctors and overhaul of the estate tax. Over the next decade, these exceptions could be worth about $2.5 trillion, says Marc Goldwein of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

Or take the 18-member presidential bipartisan budget commission (10 Democrats and eight Republicans) charged with reining in the long-term deficits. If 14 members agree on a deficit-reduction package, Democratic congressional leaders have said they'd put the plan to an up-or-down vote. The obstacles to agreement are considerable. But if they're overcome -- and if Congress accepts the package -- you might reasonably conclude that, finally, we'd be suppressing chronic deficits. Not so.

The commission's official task is more modest: It's to eliminate the deficit in 2015, disregarding interest payments. This makes a big difference. By the administration's projections, the budget deficit in 2015 will total $752 billion. Of that, interest payments represent $571 billion. Even if the commission succeeds, the deficit would exceed half a trillion dollars. It would almost certainly grow in future years.

Governing is about making choices. By contrast, the la-la politics of both left and right evade choices and substitute for them pleasing fictional visions. Despite a theoretical argument for focusing on the non-interest deficit, it's mostly an excuse for expediency. It spares the commission from grappling with the huge growth of Social Security and Medicare -- the main causes for expanding federal spending and deficits. Similarly, the right's crusade for more tax cuts conveniently ignores the savage cuts in these programs that would be required to justify lower taxes.

The common denominator is a triumph of electioneering over governing. Every campaign is an exercise in make-believe. All the good ideas and good people lie on one side. All the "special interests," barbarians and dangerous ideas lie on the other. There's no room for the real world's messy ambiguities, discomforting contradictions and unpopular choices. But to govern successfully, leaders must confront precisely those ambiguities, contradictions and choices.

The make-believe of campaigns increasingly shapes the process of governing. Whether this reflects cable TV and the Internet -- which reward the harsh hostility of extreme partisanship -- or the precarious balance between the two parties or something else is hard to say. But the disconnect between policy and the real world is harmful. Proposals tend to be constructed more for their public relations effects than for their capacity to solve actual problems.

The result is a paradox. This electioneering style of governing strives to bolster politicians' popularity. But it does the opposite. Because partisan rhetoric creates exaggerated expectations of what government can do, people across the ideological spectrum are routinely disillusioned. Because actual problems fester -- and people see that -- public trust of political leaders erodes.


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