Is there anything worse than the political and journalistic discourse we've been hearing about tomorrow's sequester? Yes–it's the political and journalistic discourse we didn't hear about crucial fiscal issues during the interminable 2012 presidential election.
Consider the three 90-minute debates between President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, in which more than 50,000 words were spoken (for perspective, Obama's State of the Union address this year clocked in at just over 6,400). With a deadline looming just seven weeks after the election, how many times did the candidates or interlocutors mention the looming "fiscal cliff"?
OK, surely they mentioned the "debt ceiling," right?
In fact, the word fiscal did not once pass through any participant's lips: Not the president who in 2010 said "we're facing an untenable fiscal situation," not the standard-bearer for the alleged party of limited government, not the newly emboldened, fact-checktastic press. Even long-term fiscal buzzkill Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) did not utter the F-word once during his debate with the equally reticent Vice President Joe Biden.
Sequestration may be all the rage this month, but it got mentioned in precisely one exchange during the presidential debates. Here it is:
ROMNEY: […] We need to have as well a strong military. Our military is second to none in the world. We're blessed with terrific soldiers and extraordinary technology and intelligence. But the idea of a trillion dollars in cuts through sequestration and budget cuts to the military would change that. […]
Our Navy is older — excuse me — our Navy is smaller now than any time since 1917. The Navy said they needed 313 ships to carry out their mission. We're now down to 285. We're headed down to the — to the low 200s if we go through with sequestration. That's unacceptable to me. I want to make sure that we have the ships that are required by our Navy.
Our Air Force is older and smaller than any time since it was founded in 1947. We've changed for the first time since FDR. We — since FDR we had the — we've always had the strategy of saying we could fight in two conflicts at once. Now we're changing to one conflict.
Look, this, in my view, is the highest responsibility of the president of the United States, which is to maintain the safety of the American people. And I will not cut our military budget by a trillion dollars, which is the combination of the budget cuts that the president has as well as the sequestration cuts. That, in my view, is — is — is making our future less certain and less secure. I won't do it.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Bob, I just need to comment on this. First of all, the sequester is not something that I proposed. It's something that Congress has proposed. It will not happen. The budget that we're talking about is not reducing our military spending. It's maintaining it.
So the press never asked one debate question about the sequester, Romney demagogued it (inaccurately) as a crippling hit to the military, and Obama lied about not proposing it (that is, if you believe the reporting of Bob Woodward), while predicting, wrongly, that it "will not happen." And the next day's headlines concerning this exchange had to do with Obama's follow-up joke: "you mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets."
That pretty much sums up contemporary Washington, D.C.
In the July 2012 issue of Reason I pre-emptively declared the presidential campaign as "Stupid Season." After the election, I marveled at how "economic policy did not dominate the campaign season," and made this observation about the fiscal cliff:
Although this deadline of doom went all but unmentioned during the general election, it is the public policy issue going forward. Two days after the election, a banner headline on the front page of The New York Times proclaimed, "Back to Work: Obama Greeted by Looming Fiscal Crisis." It would have been nice if the candidates (or the press) had talked about this impending disaster during the previous two years.