There is a make-believe quality to modern American politics: People -- and this applies across the political spectrum -- say things that are stupid, misleading or unattainable and think (or pretend) that these very same things are desirable, candid and realistic. A disconnect between the language of politics and the nation's actual problems is growing.
On the right, we have conservatives clamoring for tax cuts when, as a practical matter, today's massive budget deficits preclude permanent new tax cuts. With present policies and a decent economic recovery, the federal government could easily spend $12 trillion more than it collects in taxes from 2009 to 2020, reckons the Congressional Budget Office. So before reducing taxes, the tax cut advocates need to identify hundreds of billions of annual spending reductions -- or accept huge and hazardous annual deficits. Naturally, a comprehensive list of spending cuts is nowhere in sight.
On the left, President Obama and Democrats have spent the last year arguing that, despite the government's massive deficits and overspending, they can responsibly propose even more spending.
Governing is about making choices. By contrast, the la-la politics of both left and right evade choices and substitute for them pleasing fictional visions. Despite a theoretical argument for focusing on the non-interest deficit, it's mostly an excuse for expediency. It spares the commission from grappling with the huge growth of Social Security and Medicare -- the main causes for expanding federal spending and deficits. Similarly, the right's crusade for more tax cuts conveniently ignores the savage cuts in these programs that would be required to justify lower taxes.
The common denominator is a triumph of electioneering over governing. Every campaign is an exercise in make-believe. All the good ideas and good people lie on one side. All the "special interests," barbarians and dangerous ideas lie on the other. There's no room for the real world's messy ambiguities, discomforting contradictions and unpopular choices. But to govern successfully, leaders must confront precisely those ambiguities, contradictions and choices.The result is a paradox. This electioneering style of governing strives to bolster politicians' popularity. But it does the opposite. Because partisan rhetoric creates exaggerated expectations of what government can do, people across the ideological spectrum are routinely disillusioned. Because actual problems fester -- and people see that -- public trust of political leaders erodes.
Conservative on Campus!
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