One of the most frustrating parts of the GOP debates is how little spending cuts and entitlement reforms are being discussed. It’s come up briefly in both debates, but not really in a substantive nature. It’s something which has National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson vexed (emphasis mine).
We conservatives, and the Republican elected officials who are, lest we forget, our only real channel of political action, play a game of double make-believe: They’re smart enough to know what the fiscal realities are, but they’re also smart enough to know that campaigning on those realities is a loser, and we understand their dilemma and don’t expect actual policies to look very much like campaign documents, anyway, so everybody ends up pretending that the choice is between competing non-viable budget plans rather than between wishful thinking and reality. My friend Larry Kudlow sometimes wincingly describes the realist school of budget-hawkery as the “eat your spinach” faction or the “root-canal guys,” and no doubt there is real political wisdom informing that view. But Uncle Stupid desperately needs a root canal, and no amount of wishful thinking or happy talk about self-financing tax cuts is going to change that.
That last part is extremely important because it’s something both the GOP establishment and base fail to realize time and time again. The only GOP president in the last 100 years to actually do something about meaningful spending cuts was Calvin Coolidge. Amity Shlaes wrote in her fantastic biography of Silent Cal how aggressive he tackled financial issues.
Coolidge hacked away at the federal budget with a discipline tragically missing in his well-intendionted predecessor, Warren G. Harding. Coolidge vetoed fifty bills and turned down new spending, even for projects such as farm subsidies and construction of rural postal roads that would have immensely benefited the region from which he hailed…Coolidge’s budget vigilance was so steadfast it lent itself to caricature; some artists depicted the thirtieth president as a Victorian throwback.
He’d also meet with Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon every day on where to cut the budget and lower taxes. Shock of all shock it worked! Coolidge’s time in office is called “The Roaring 20’s” for a reason because of how growth skyrocketed and people from all ways of life saw benefit. It wasn’t because of new entitlement programs, but because of budget vigilance. The current GOP crop of candidates tends to only get things half-right. They love to talk tax cuts (which are fantastic) but never bother with the other half of the equation which is spending cuts. It’s just so disappointing. Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina all talk about the need for a strong military, meaning they want to see more money go into the Pentagon. Marco Rubio, with the support of Ted Cruz, told the Senate he believed the the military budget has to higher to protect national security.
“The national security of our country is the predominant obligation of the federal branch of government. It is the one thing that only the federal government can do, and it is the first thing that it is tasked with doing.”
This ignores the fact the Department of Defense’s FY 2016 budget request is $534.3B, which is almost $20B higher than the last budget request from the Bush Administration. The Pentagon doesn’t need more money, it needs to be audited and have all the waste cut out. This isn’t going to sit well with defense hawks like Rubio, Trump, Fiorina, Cruz, Carson, and Lindsey Graham but it’s the only way to reduce the debt. The same goes with cuts to other government programs whether it’s foreign aid, “job creation,” health care (both veterans and Obamacare), the EPA, Department of Homeland Security, and more. If it means starting small and slowly cutting out smaller departments, that’s fine. But meaningful spending cuts have to happen.
It’s not just government spending which need cuts. Williamson correctly notes how the candidates need to start being more real with voters on entitlement reform. But then he also points out how neither the Establishment or the populist Right appear interested in entitlement reform.
A broad and deep program of entitlement reform would be a national game-changer, a radical improvement in the credibility of our public finances. Of course, the populist Right, which is in the end barely distinguishable from the populist Left, detests Social Security reform, because it is in reality another welfare-state interest group, one that has convinced itself that all that extravagant New Deal and Great Society statism would be just peachy if it weren’t for all the damned dirty foreigners.
Williamson is absolutely correct. Chris Christie’s proposal to increase the retirement age is way too slow because it phases it in over a 25 year period. Jeb Bush says DC isn’t “protecting or preserving out entitlement system,” while Mike Huckabee laughs off entitlement reform as being unfair to people over 65. And Trump? He doesn’t want to do anything except possibly make it voluntary because “there are people that truly don’t need it, and there are many people that do need it very, very badly.” Cruz has talked the need for “common sense” entitlement reform without giving specifics. Raul Paul is also nebulous on entitlement reform, but has promoted raising the retirement age, testing yearly earnings, and making sure people currently on Social Security (or close to it) can still get full benefits. Fiorina doesn’t want to even discuss entitlement reform until a whole host of other issues are solved. It’s disheartening that no one appears interested in trying to actually solve the problem.
It’s very true that entitlement reform and budget cuts are extremely unpopular with voters. People like airy promises of “Don’t worry it’ll be there for you,” without actually hearing whether the system needs to be there in the first place or “we need to protect you from [[ insert alleged danger ]].” Candidates are going to have to discuss why cuts need to happen and then explain it in a way which appeals to voters in an emotional way. It’s the messaging part which is the hardest, which is probably why no candidate appears willing to do this. But they’re going to have to at some point. If not, then they’re just sticking their heads in the sand until the entire system falls apart.