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Watching cable news this morning I was confronted with an interesting reality: People didn’t want to talk about the presidential election. Some anchors seemed to feel guilty when switching the subject to the presidential race. I noticed the same thing on social media, and in my correspondence. It seemed inappropriate to talk about the presidential election when something as important as Sandy was happening. It seemed silly to talk about the presidential election when something as serious as a major, devastating storm was shattering many homes and businesses, and some lives.
Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey, a state upon which Sandy inflicted incredible damage, captured the mood quite well, as reported by Politico:
“On ‘Fox and Friends,’ (Governor) Christie bristled at the mere mention of presidential politics when asked if Romney would come and tour damaged areas.
“’’I have no idea, nor am I the least bit concerned or interested,’ Christie said. ‘I’ve got a job to do here in New Jersey that’s much bigger than presidential politics, and I could care less about any of that stuff. I have a job to do. I’ve got 2.4 million people out of power. I’ve got devastation on the Shore. I’ve got floods in the northern part of my state. If you think right now I give a damn about presidential politics, then you don’t know me.’”
My knee-jerk reaction was to give the governor a boisterous cheer — finally, someone in politics who has his priorities straight. Enough of silly season; something important is happening.
But then I paused for a moment. Isn’t the presidential election a big deal? Doesn’t it matter who is sitting in the Oval Office for the next four years?
The Washington Post reported this evening that Sandy caused at least 37 deaths and left millions without power. This is a tragedy, to be sure. It adds to the quantity of suffering in America.
Also on the ledger: The Census Bureau tells us that one in five American children lives in poverty, along with over 8 percent of seniors. Census classifies a family consisting of a mother, dad, and two children as poor if their money income (including public cash transfers, before taxes and tax credits, and excluding noncash transfers) is less than roughly 23,000 dollars. A single person with no children is poor if he earns less than around 12,000 dollars. By this measure, overall, some 46 million Americans live in poverty. That’s over three in 20 Americans.
Over 46 million Americans receive food stamps, and over half of those are children or elderly. More than 10 million Americans receive disability insurance payments from the federal government. Roughly one in four youths doesn’t finish high school — nearly one-third of black and Hispanic youths leave high school without a diploma. On any given night, HUD reports that well over half a million Americans are homeless.
Twelve million American workers are unemployed. Of those, 4.8 million have been unemployed for longer than half a year — their skills deteriorating with each passing day, employers afraid to take a chance and hire them, many feeling hopelessness and despair. Over 8.6 million workers are employed part-time but would like a full-time job. The long-term ramifications of our unemployment crisis are significant: human capital wasting away in middle-aged workers, skills not being developed in younger workers, our long-term economic growth depressed.
These statistics are startling. They are great challenges for the next president.
Indeed, when reflecting on these statistics it seems that the presidential election is anything but small. Sandy is devastating and of serious import, no question. But judging by those statistics, the outcome of the presidential election is also important. Very important.
Why? Because the two candidates bring very different policy prescriptions to these statistics.
On the Republican side, we know what Paul Ryan’s most recent budget does. As has been widely discussed, Mr. Ryan’s budget proposal, adopted by the House of Representatives this spring, slashes the safety net — cutting publicly funded healthcare to poor families, food stamps, low-income housing, child care, Head Start, WIC, and more. Now, some of these programs could use a redesign and perhaps a trim, but the CBO finds that the House Republican’s budget proposal puts these programs on a long-term path to near nonexistence. It does this while kicking the can down the road on cutting that spending which benefits the middle class.
The Democrats, including the president, have attacked Mr. Ryan’s approach to bringing the budget into balance, highlighting its effect on the poor, and have attacked Governor Romney’s implicit embrace of the House Republicans approach. But the Democrats and the president are just the devil in different clothing.
Candidate Obama ran in 2008 by promising to make the hard choices that need to be made with respect to our runaway entitlement programs, remembering all the while that we are our brother’s keeper. President Obama, shockingly, refused to embrace Bowles-Simpson, to say nothing of proposing a fiscal consolidation plan of his own — the president is criminal in his negligent stewardship of our fiscal future, racking up massive deficits with no serious plan for reform.
How massive? We have had four straight years with a budget deficit over one-trillion dollars. Over the last four years we have taken a ten-trillion dollar gross federal debt — accumulated over every presidency from George Washington to George W. Bush — and added six trillion to it. Under current policy the debt is forecast to grow and grow.
Even if there is not a catastrophic crisis as a consequence of our debt, trillion-dollar budget deficits will crowd out growth in the private economy, slowing economic mobility, making it harder for the poor to achieve the American dream of economic advancement and for the millions of unemployed and part-time workers to find full-time work, pushing many onto the disability rolls and into the cold embrace of the welfare state.
By not putting forward a plan for our fiscal future, the president commits us to an unacceptable status quo. By not taking action on solving our fiscal problems, the president hurts the poor and threatens the existence of the very safety net that he attacks the Republicans for wanting to defund.
What is the president’s plan for fiscal consolidation? Indeed, what is the president’s second-term agenda at all?
Perhaps we have just stumbled upon the reason why so many people felt that talking about the presidential election at a time like this is unseemly — why so many people felt that discussing presidential politics was turning the conversation from the important to the trivial.
What is the president’s second-term agenda? As far as I can tell, it consists of preserving Big Bird, ensuring that Obamacare continues to cover Romneysia, liberating women from Governor Romney’s binders, and continuing to combat the (fictional yet apparently very powerful) forces in American life fighting to outlaw contraception.
Indeed, just last week President Obama released a short, glossy booklet with the telling title: “The New Economic Patriotism: A Plan For Jobs & Middle-Class Security.” The first thing about the booklet that struck me is the ratio of photographs of the president to words on the page. The second is that the booklet contains not much of anything new in the way of public policy.
The president doesn’t like Governor Romney’s ideas for bringing the budget into balance. But what is his plan? What does he want to do?
For Governor Romney’s part, we know that he embraces big, bold ideas: tax reform, Medicare reform, overturning Obamacare. I give him enormous credit for spelling out the broad principles by which he wants to bring our budget into balance.
But when pushed to give the details the governor has been much less than forthcoming. So much less that David Brooks has written that “Romney’s tax plan doesn’t pass the laugh test.” When you run for president you can’t just state broad principles and big ideas. You have to reassure the American people that you have a solid plan to enact your principles. Governor Romney hasn’t done this. He has opened himself up to the small-ball attacks being thrown at him by the president.
So it’s not that Sandy is important and presidential politics isn’t. It’s not that Sandy matters and the presidential election doesn’t. The mood captured in the national conversation today reflects a pox on both our houses: This presidential campaign has been small when it should have been big.
The country faces big challenges. The candidates have very different visions for dealing with our nation’s problems and future. The outcome of the election is very important. But you would never know it from the public conversation.
Romneysia and contraception are less important than Sandy. But whether the presidential candidates want to talk about it or not, there’s more at stake in this election than Sesame Street.
Michael R. Strain is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Follow him on Twitter @michaelrstrain.
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