As April turned into May, the political class spent the better part of one week furiously missing the point. Instead of a debate about whether America's battle against Islamic extremists was going well, whether the Pentagon's extensive activities across the Muslim world were making the country safer, or whether a country with $15 trillion in debt could continue accounting for almost half of the world's military spending, the foreign policy flap du jour centered around whether presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney had been sufficiently gung ho in 2008 about sending assassins into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden and whether President Barack Obama's choice to "spike the football" with a campaign ad celebrating the one-year anniversary of Bin Laden's death was inappropriately political.
This meaningless, backward-looking debate—on which I dutifully weighed in for cable news and talk radio (if they ask, I will come!)—at least had the virtue of being somewhat related to the federal government's core business. Not so the hot topic of discussion the week before that, which was how exactly Congress should pay for the estimated $6 billion annually it would cost to extend an expiring 2007 reduction in the interest rate on federally guaranteed student loans.
Both major political parties wanted to keep subsidizing the loans at 3.4 percent instead of letting the rate go back up to the pre-2007 6.8 percent. The dispute concerned whether the money would come from boosting payroll taxes on corporations (as favored by Senate Democrats), cutting subsidies to oil and gas companies (as House Democrats wanted), or cutting spending from the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (the House Republicans' proposal). As frequently happens with microscopic differences on minor issues, the choice was portrayed by the political class as a matter of life or death.
"This is personal," Obama told college students in Iowa. "This is at the heart of who we are. We've got to make college more affordable for more young people. We can't put the middle class at a disadvantage. We can't price out folks who are trying to make sure that they not only succeed for themselves but help the country succeed."
While there is an interesting policy debate to be had about government intervention in the increasingly expensive higher education business, a little perspective is in order: The federal leviathan currently burns through $6 billion in less than 15 hours. It takes about a day and a half for Washington to rack up $6 billion in debt. With each passing hour, our debt crisis grows larger, our entitlement time bomb ticks closer to detonation, and our politicians do everything in their power to change the subject.
If there is a lesson to be gleaned from the charade of student loan politicking, it is that nothing gets the competitive juices of Democrats and Republicans flowing quite like the opportunity to promise "free" money to favored constituencies—a fact that helps explain our acceleration toward the fiscal cliff. They prefer to campaign on these small differences in patronage methodologies, while condemning the unforgivable venality of the other guys, rather than take the political risk of dealing forthrightly with mathematically untenable budgets.
Even the politicians who at first seem to be exceptions to that rule are often disappointments. In 2003 Arnold Schwarzenegger swept into the gubernatorial mansion in California promising to balance budgets, "blow up boxes" of bureaucracy, reform runaway pension promises, and tackle entrenched public-sector interests head-on. He was a hit at the Republican National Convention in 2004, calling Democrats "economic girly-men," whatever that meant. By 2005, after losing a bruising battle with nurses' unions and other labor groups, Schwarzenegger beat a hasty retreat, leaving office with a record that looked eerily similar to that of his disgraced predecessor, Gray Davis.
Scott Walker, the Republican governor of Wisconsin, proved more daring than the Austrian Oak after winning office in 2010, pushing through legislation by the slimmest of majorities to eliminate most collective bargaining rights of public-sector unions, compel government workers to contribute more money to their health insurance and retirement, and trim state spending by modest amounts. The result was a local backlash that turned national, leading to a recall vote scheduled for June 5 and sending shivers down the spines of budget realists everywhere.
In this environment, it feels safer to speak loudly about reform but carry a little stick. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has warmed Republican hearts by conspicuously clashing with Democratic politicians and public-sector unionists who have helped drive the Garden State into a fiscal ditch. But look beyond the crowd pleasing one-liners ("What the hell are we paying you for?" Christie once said to Obama after the president failed to come up with a debt reduction proposal), and you see a proposed state budget that increases spending by $2.1 billion (according to The Record of North Jersey), corporate-welfare giveaways since 2010 amounting to nearly $1.6 billion (according to The New York Times), and signals that the governor favors raising New Jersey's minimum wage to $10 an hour. But Christie probably will remain a conservative favorite (especially outside his state) as long as he continues calling opponents "numbnuts" now and then.
Mitt Romney has taken this risk aversion strategy a step further, altogether avoiding specific proposals for confronting the federal fiscal crisis. Romney promises to "cut, cap, and balance" the budget, but he also vows to boost military spending, protect Medicare, and shore up Social Security. In a comical mid-April flurry, news outlets reported that Romney had told high-level donors at a private fundraiser, "I'm going to take a lot of departments in Washington, and agencies, and combine them. Some eliminate." When word of this vaguer-than-Schwarzenegger promise got out, the Romney campaign immediately backpedaled. A spokesman told CNN the candidate was "tossing ideas out, not unveiling policy."
The rhetorical cowardice is deliberate. During his 1994 campaign against Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), Romney told The Weekly Standard in March, "one of the things I found…was that when I said, for instance, that I wanted to eliminate the Department of Education, that was used to suggest I don't care about education.…So will there be some [departments] that get eliminated or combined? The answer is yes, but I'm not going to give you a list right now."
This is the tepid stuff that wins Republican Party nominations in 2012, the first full year since World War II in which total federal debt will exceed gross domestic product. There isn't a politician alive who doesn't understand that the current trend is unsustainable. Yet there are virtually no politicians who have placed this national interest at the center of their agenda.
So what are we going to talk about for the next six months? In early April, Democrats were keen to discuss the GOP's "war on women," with the president convening a special "White House Forum on Women and the Economy." A week later, Republicans struck back after Democratic operative Hilary Rosen charged that Ann Romney had "never worked a day in her life." And for a few stunning days later that month, conservatives who were fed up with liberal snickering over the story that Mitt Romney once strapped his dog to the roof of the family car gleefully seized on a passage in Obama's memoir where he described eating dog in Indonesia. If we don't get serious about our problems, we will soon be eating something much worse.
Editor in Chief Matt Welch is co-author, with Nick Gillespie, of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America (PublicAffairs).