Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis (D), who often promises to "get our fiscal house in order," told a Texas campaign audience recently that the Strategic Petroleum Reserve should be filled "as rapidly as we can" and domestic oil producers could be given a $5-a-barrel "incentive" for helping to fill it.
The cost: at least $4 billion.
Vice President Bush, who repeatedly blames Congress for the federal deficit, told an Iowa audience recently about his proposal for savings bonds for college education, which would cost about $1 billion a year. "It's not all that expensive for the federal government," he said.
Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), who has promised to balance the budget in three years, proposes a jobs program that he said would cost $8 billion.
Republican Marion G. (Pat) Robertson, a former television evangelist, has said, "Under my administration we would balance the budget, but we would do it by cutting waste and mismanagement in Washington rather than raising taxes on the American people." Robertson also wants to deploy the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) at a cost of $20 billion a year.
As these and other candidates for the 1988 Republican and Democratic presidential nominations have demonstrated in recent months, the large federal budget deficits have become a big issue. Everyone is against deficits, but just about everyone has ideas for new spending that would enlarge the deficit.
The campaign has become a fiscal candy store. And the candidates, hungry after seven years of constricted domestic spending under President Reagan, are eagerly eyeing all sorts of goodies to use for romancing the electorate. Among their proposals are tax-break sweeteners, lucrative subsidies and new initiatives for which the sponsors have not yet figured out the cost.
Even the more frugal among the candidates have their favorites. Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) launched his campaign last week with a vow to "tackle the runaway federal budget." But he also promised to protect "programs to assist vulnerable Americans."
Former Delaware governor Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV, another Republican contender, would reduce spending by eliminating the $26 billion farm price supports, but he said his new idea of tax credits for "financial security accounts" outside Social Security would cost $20 billion a year. Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), who has stressed tax cuts and economic growth, would begin deployment of SDI at a cost of $100 billion over five years, to come out of existing Pentagon programs.
Most of the candidates have yet to come forward with detailed proposals to pay for new programs as well as to significantly reduce budget deficits left from the Reagan years and projected to still be above $100 billion a year when the next president takes office in January 1989.
Most Republican candidates have vowed not to raise taxes. Most Democrats are loath to talk about the possibility, although Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) has proposed a deficit-reduction package including an oil import fee and spending cuts, and former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt includes new taxes in his detailed deficit-reduction proposals.
"There's an extraordinary amount of doublespeak that's going on," said Mike McCurry, a spokesman for Babbitt, a struggling contender whose $40 billion revenue-and-cuts program is shunned by most candidates. "You say you're a fiscal conservative," McCurry said. "And then you have the right to propose new public works . . . or say, 'Look what goodies I've got.' "
Compared with the campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s, the promises of today may seem paltry. There are no huge Great Society proposals in the offing to try to wipe out poverty. No one is even talking about a defense buildup of the magnitude Reagan proffered eight years ago. Instead, the budget deficit has stilled talk of massive new government involvement in anything, and most of the candidates have pledged to bring down the deficits of the Reagan years.
"One difference today is they are not promising the moon," said Mitch Daniels, who was Reagan's White House political director and is now at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank. "They are promising something less than that -- but they are promising."
Tom Donilon, a Democratic strategist, said the candidates risk losing a mandate for what they will have to do once elected. While there may be "short-term political comfort in not addressing the deficit issue forthrightly," he said, the long-term cost is "the problem is not going to go away for a new president in 1989. It goes to the heart of his ability to govern if he has not been straight with the American people, if he has no political mandate for dealing with the country's fiscal problem."
In offering new programs while also criticizing the existing deficit, many candidates have simply left unanswered the questions about how they would reconcile these conflicting goals. The questions may be resolved over the year-long campaign ahead, but in many ways the answers are more significant today than they were in 1980 when Reagan made a promise he couldn't keep to balance the budget, cut taxes and increase military spending.
Reagan's budget promise ran afoul of recession, the unexpectedly sharp decline of inflation, tax cuts that outpaced spending cuts and a rapid military buildup. For all his talk of a balanced budget, Reagan never submitted a spending plan that would provide revenue for all the programs he wanted.
At the same time, to hear the new crop of candidates tell it, Americans have all kinds of needs that have gone unmet by the government, from college student aid to improved outdoor recreation.
For example, Simon, who describes himself as a traditional Democrat, proposed an $8 billion jobs program. In a campaign brochure he says his legislation "would guarantee a job opportunity for everyone who has been out of work for five weeks or more." He also has proposed expanding Medicare to cover the costs of long-term health care for the elderly. On education, "some people say that times are bad, money is tight. So we can't afford to spend on education," says the pamphlet. "That's backwards."
Simon also told The Des Moines Register last summer that "one of these days" the investment tax credit should be restored. The investment tax credit, repealed last year in the tax overhaul bill, would have cost the government $24 billion in revenue this year.
At the same time, Simon has proposed balancing the budget in three years by reducing unemployment below current levels. Simon's literature declares, "Paul Simon is a pay-as-you-go Democrat who sees the mushrooming federal deficit as the greatest economic problem facing this country . . . . Cut unemployment in half and the deficit is under control."
Simon's ability to achieve these goals has been challenged by his rivals. Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) said Simon had offered a "budget-busting jobs program designed for a depression." Terry Michael, Simon's spokesman, responds that Simon would not do everything at once.
"They try to narrow him down to some caricature of a programmatic liberal who would recreate every program of the New Deal and Great Society. He realizes there are limits, that the federal budget pie has its limits. What he wants to do within that pie, once the budget is under control, is pick and choose to move on problems," Michael said. "You choose to do a few things well. The fact is there are a lot of problems that haven't been moved on."
Simon is not alone. Dukakis, for example, also is confronting the difficult mathematics of seeking new spending and simultaneously coping with deficits.
Dukakis has proposed a $250 million "National Teaching Excellence Fund" to recruit and retain teachers; a $100 million "economic development fund" to aid rural economies; hiring and training 2,000 new air traffic controllers; universal health insurance coverage, and expansions of Medicare and Medicaid. He also has proposed buying the remaining 215 million barrels of oil needed to fill the Strategic Petroleum Reserve -- which would cost about $4 billion at current prices.
In a speech Oct. 29, Dukakis said that in addition he would "put incentives in place to increase the number of rigs in operation" in domestic oil fields. He proposed two possible incentives: a tax break on the income of new exploratory wells, or a $5-a-barrel premium for some of the domestic oil used for the strategic reserve. The latter idea would cost the government $500 million if only half of the remaining capacity of the reserve were set aside for domestic producers.
While saying he would not rule out tax increases, Dukakis instead has proposed that the government attempt to collect some of the estimated $110 billion in unpaid federal taxes with improved enforcement and a one-time tax amnesty. Aides say the two ideas could yield about $15 billion in the first year. His rivals have attacked the proposals as simply an effort to evade the harder taxation and spending choices.
"Mike Dukakis has never once during this whole campaign talked about a new revenue source . . . or seen a program he doesn't like," Babbitt charged last week in a debate. Dukakis fired back that he had a record of balanced budgets as governor and "I know how to cut spending."
According to his campaign issues director, Christopher Edley Jr., the major spending cut that Dukakis would use to pay for his new domestic programs is the SDI, slashing it by $2.4 billion. Edley said Dukakis also would not rush into all his promises; for example, the energy proposal would "obviously have to take into account budget priorities. It's a question of when it's affordable." But Dukakis also is adding items. On Friday he proposed a "conventional defense initiative" to beef up conventional forces while reducing spending on nuclear weapons.
Democrats have plenty of company among the Republican candidates when it comes to hankering for new initiatives or an easing of the domestic austerity of the Reagan years.
Bush, for example, has promised to restore cuts made by Reagan in college student aid and vocational education. When asked about an administration proposal to cut off aid to colleges with high student loan default rates -- including more than a dozen in Iowa -- Bush told a student at Wartburg College there that he favors more "flexibility in how people go about paying back their loans."
Bush also said he would spend more on narcotics enforcement, and he backed subsidies for making ethanol from grain. Bush also has praised a report on the outdoors that called for a national system of scenic byways and "greenways" and establishment of a $1 billion trust fund for recreation programs and land acquisition. Privately, Bush also has backed new tax breaks for oil and gas producers that Reagan subsequently rejected.
Bush, who has said he would balance the budget in five years and not raise taxes, repeatedly lays the blame for deficits on Congress. "We didn't try to increase spending, we tried to cut it," he told another student in Iowa. "It got overridden by the Congress. As you know from your studies, Congress appropriates every single dime and spends every single dime. It is not the administration."
Robertson borrowed a page from Reagan's 1980 campaign and proposed recently that the budget be balanced by eliminating waste, fraud and abuse in government, a pledge Reagan did not fulfill. Other candidates also have promised to make ends meet by rooting out "inefficiency" in the Defense Department.
"It's the same old song," said Lawrence Kudlow, a former Reagan administration budget economist. The candidates, he said, "misunderstand the difference between government efficiency and government policies. All these candidates have to come to grips with the fact that major budget deficit reduction requires painful policy choices rather than cliches like waste, fraud and abuse."