Debates and the debt

In a recent letter to the Commission on Presidential Debates, the Concord Coalition asked that a significant portion of debate time prior to the 2016 election be devoted to the candidates’ plans for dealing with the nation’s growing fiscal difficulties. The coalition got no commitment from the commission other than a promise “to bear in mind your thoughtful suggestions regarding the federal budget deficit and related matters.” But whatever the commission decides will relate only to scheduled debates, still many months away, between the candidates ultimately nominated to represent the major political parties.

Unfortunately, the so-called debates now being held — four so far involving Republican candidates and one for Democratic candidates — are not under the auspices of the commission and are organized instead by the party organizations in cooperation with various television networks. And so far, those productions — not really debates at all — have produced precious little of substance concerning the nation’s ongoing budget deficit problems and the ever-increasing national debt, now at a staggering $18.2 trillion.

Earlier this year, the Concord Coalition and the Campaign to Fix the Debt joined forces in First Budget initiative, asking every candidate to respond to the following question: “If you are elected our next president, what will you do in your first budget to address the national debt?”

But debate organizers have shown little interest so far in supporting that effort. Part of the problem is format, especially on the Republican side. With so many candidates involved, it’s next to impossible to have any meaningful and substantive debate in the time available. Bit moderators assigned by the television networks have mostly chosen to pose questions designed to emphasize controversy, embarrass candidates and produce titillating sound bites, rather than to elicit sound and thoughtful discussion of domestic or foreign policy.

Most candidates have little inclination to confront problems that will require difficult or unpopular choices. But as the Concord Coalition points out, there is a direct link between the candidates’ economic visions for the nation and their fiscal policy proposals. “With the budget already on an unsustainable track,” said the coalition in its letter to the Commission on Presidential Debates, “new tax-cut or spending proposals — no matter how attractive in the abstract — will need to be paid for or the debt burden will simply expand. And even if new promises are fully paid for, there is the remaining question of how to close the structural budget gap we already have.”

A recently enacted continuing resolution approved by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama last week avoided an immediate federal debt crisis, suspending a confrontation over the federal debt limit until March 2017. Concord Coalition Executive Director Bob Bixby said the legislation also included some reforms to Social Security and Medicare that potentially could be built upon.

But for that to happen will require leadership from our next president. We hope the Commission on Presidential Debates will press moderators of next year’s debates to make fiscal policy a primary topic of discussion by those nominated for the nation’s highest office. As the Concord Coalition so rightly observes, “…budgets are not an abstract concept. They are the essence of governing and they deserve to have a prominent place in a debate that will help voters determine who they wish to support as the next president of the United States.”

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