Mitt Romney rightfully got the nod as the victor of last night's debate, but while he carried himself with style and poise while Barack Obama looked like he wished he could be anywhere but on that stage, neither major-party candidate seriously addressed the big issue of the moment: a federal government that's spending money it doesn't have on big-ticket projects it can't afford. Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and Military spending were all mentioned by the candidates in Denver, but not in the context of any serious plans to rein in the costs to a level the federal government might pay for on an ongoing basis.
Mitt Romney boasted, "I do not believe in cutting our military. I believe in maintaining the strength of America's military." In response, President Obama rightly dinged his opponent for promising "$2 trillion in additional military spending that the military hasn't asked for." But Obama didn't offer up any ideas for cutting military spending himself. And while, last year, Congress did pass a White House proposal for a paltry $500 billion in cuts over ten years, just weeks ago, Obama told a military audience, "There's no reason those cuts should happen. Because folks in congress ought to come together and agree on a responsible plan that reduces the deficit and keeps our military strong. That's what needs to happen."
President Obama insisted, "Social Security is structurally sound. It's going to have to be tweaked the way it was by Ronald Reagan and Speaker — Democratic Speaker Tip O'Neill. But it is — the basic structure is sound." That's a laughable claim for a program that's circling the drain — and threatening to suck federal finances down with it. But all Romney had to offer in response was, "And with regards to young people coming along, I've got proposals to make sure Medicare and Social Security are there for them without any question." In reality, all his campaign has offered is that "the retirement age should be slowly increased" and "benefits should continue to grow but that the growth rate should be lower for those with higher incomes." That's … not going to do it.
Medicare is in worse shape than Social Security, but President Obama boasts "we went after medical fraud in Medicare and Medicaid very aggressively, more aggressively than ever before, and have saved tens of billions of dollars" — sums that are statistical blips for a program that spends unaffordable hundreds of billions every year. He also talks of a projected "$716 billion we were able to save from the Medicare program by no longer overpaying insurance companies by making sure that we weren't overpaying providers. …" But, as Romney points out, that supposed savings comes from lower compensation for providers at a time when "15 percent of hospitals and nursing homes say they won't take anymore Medicare patients under that scenario. We also have 50 percent of doctors who say they won't take more Medicare patients."
Of course, if you pay providers so little that they refuse your business, you may save money by default, but that seems an unlikely result of this scenario.
Romney does promise to introduce an element of choice into Medicare with a private alternative, but he also says, "I want to take that $716 billion you've cut and put it back into Medicare. By the way, we can include a prescription program if we need to improve it."
Obama charges that "Governor Romney talked about Medicaid and how we could send it back to the states, but effectively this means a 30 percent cut in the primary program we help for seniors who are in nursing homes, for kids who are with disabilities." A thirty percent cut would probably be a good start, in terms of fiscal sanity, but Romney counters, "Medicaid to states? I'm not quite sure where that came in, except this, which is, I would like to take the Medicaid dollars that go to states and say to a state, you're going to get what you got last year, plus inflation, plus 1 percent, and then you're going to manage your care for your poor in the way you think best."
President Obama's own plan seems to consist of hoping for the best: "[W]hen Obamacare is fully implemented, we're going to be in a position to show that costs are going down. And over the last two years, health care premiums have gone up — it's true — but they've gone up slower than any time in the last 50 years"
Overall, the debate gave us some broad differences in terms of rehetoric and stated philosophy of government, and big differences in style, but it didn't give us any serious proposals for digging the federal government — and American taxpayers — out of a deep financial hole.