It is not hard these days to find intelligent critiques of the budget policy and fiscal record of the Bush administration. Conservative and liberal think tanks alike grind out fresh analyses of the risks in the chronic refusal of the Republicans who govern the country to pay the bills they are amassing here and overseas.
Nonpartisan budget groups -- especially those with a historical attachment to budgetary prudence -- have been even tougher on the president and his allies on Capitol Hill for their seeming nonchalance in letting the debt of the federal government climb so rapidly on their watch.
What has been harder to discern is what the opposition Democrats would actually do to remedy the situation that may well confront them if their party comes back to power in the 2008 election. The other day, the thinking branch of the opposition -- centered these days in the Democratic Leadership Council and its allied organizations -- offered at least the start of a response.
At a panel headed by the DLC's chairman, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, the answer that emerged was: Strike a bipartisan bargain that would involve some short-term tax increases in return for long-term savings on entitlement programs and improvements in the administration of government.
Gene Sperling, who served as an economic adviser to President Bill Clinton, acknowledged that such a trade-off would simply be a repetition of the kind of bargain Clinton and his Republican predecessors, George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, made with Congress in their own time. Those deals -- including the tax increases Reagan signed in 1982 and Bush in 1990 -- limited but did not erase deficits. The budget agreement that Clinton signed in 1997 actually put the federal government briefly back into the black.
As Sperling recalled, there was a moment after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks when this President Bush might have found a bipartisan readiness among Americans to forgo further tax cuts in light of the new demands that suddenly confronted the nation.
But that moment quickly passed, with the president instead saying that he intended to continue the course of tax-cutting on which he had embarked -- a pledge he has regularly reiterated, even though the wreckage of fiscal policy has now become clear even to many of his fellow partisans.
Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, another of the DLC panelists, said the principle on which Democrats should approach the next campaign is a simple one: "Anything worth doing is worth paying for." Carper said that implies restoring the old budgetary rule of pay-as-you-go for both tax cuts and spending programs -- something Bush and the congressional Republicans have refused to do.
It also implies a greater readiness on the part of Democrats to reexamine the entitlement spending that poses the long-term danger of unsustainable deficits.
This message was spelled out by Maya MacGuineas, a panelist from the New America Foundation and the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. As one who has worked with Republican moderates as often as with Democrats, she was particularly insistent that Democrats must ante up for any bipartisan solutions to become possible.
Specifically, the Democrats who have profited politically this year (as in the past) by opposing any change in Social Security must, she said, recognize the necessity of reforming the country's retirement system before it becomes an impossible economic burden on working-age Americans.
MacGuineas urged the Democrats to begin examining ideas she and others have put forward that would not simply reduce future benefits or postpone the age at which retirees could claim them but would instead adapt the whole social insurance concept of the 1930s to the realities of a new millennium.
Her concepts include mandated programs of individual savings for the predictable expenses of child-rearing, education and retirement; social insurance for the costs of catastrophic but unforeseeable medical bills; and some guarantee of safety-net income for people who, through no fault of their own, lose jobs or retirement benefits because of broad economic changes.
These are big concepts, the start -- but only the start -- of a different kind of economic debate from the one the country was offered in last year's campaign.
But one thought emerged clearly from the panel: The big question is not how to pay for cleaning up from Hurricane Katrina. The real challenge is how to repair the fiscal damage Bush has left in his wake.