A version of this column appeared originally in THE DAILY BEAST.
Both presidential candidates describe this election as the most important choice in a generation and insist that the outcome will fatefully shape the direction of government and society.
But voters can’t make a meaningful decision when the discussion during the last month of the campaign (and, undoubtedly, much of the televised debate on Wednesday night) will be based on shameless, embarrassing lies.
Those lies flow most egregiously (but not exclusively) from the President of the United States.
Every day Barack Obama frames the electoral decision as a stark choice between his warm-hearted, communitarian approach of “we’re all in this together” and the cold-hearted Republican philosophy of “you’re on your own.”
But Romney’s call for reduced federal spending hardly requires the brutal cuts in support for Alzheimer’s patients and disabled children so frequently cited by partisan Democrats. The Romney-Ryan platform calls for gradually implemented spending caps that would trim the overall federal budget from 24 percent of GDP down to 20 percent of GDP – still sanctioning spending levels above the 65 year postwar average, and well above the levels that applied during the fondly-remembered Clinton administration. In 2000, his last full year in office, the sainted Slick Willy brought federal spending down to less than 18 percent but no Democrats claimed that this amounted to a callous, devastating “you’re on your own” reign of terror.
Has the sharply increased spending since that time (under President Bush and even more dramatically under President Obama) actually provided so many indispensable, additional services for the American people?
Moreover, it’s not even vaguely true that Romney plans to “raise taxes on the middle class to give new tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires” as the president regularly claims. The Republican nominee has repeatedly pledged he will never increase tax burdens on the middle class, and he signals that it is precisely the same wealthy taxpayers the president targets who will bear the brunt of the loophole closures he means to implement.
Nor is it arguably accurate, as Nancy Pelosi suggests, that the GOP won’t ask the wealthiest Americans “to pay one red cent” to help the nation deal with its looming budgetary crisis. Actually, the wealthy already provide a wildly disproportionate share of the income tax revenues to the federal government - the top 1 percent provide 37 percent of the total, and the top 10 percent contribute a staggering 71 percent. As to the bottom 50 percent of taxpayers – those households earning below $32,400 in 2009 -- their combined share of the income tax tab actually went down, not up, as a result of the controversial Bush tax cuts: from 3.9 percent of the total in 2000 to 2.3 percent in 2009.
Most importantly, even if President Obama succeeded in his top budgetary priority and raised the tax rates for the two top brackets to their Clinton-era levels, it would generate at most $80 billion a year for the Treasury, according to the administration’s own estimates. This amounts to less than 8 percent of the total federal deficit, and less than half of one percent of the national debt, providing almost nothing in terms of meaningful fiscal relief or a significant redistribution of tax burdens.
And this of course raises the specter of Republican lies that make their own contribution to the degradation of public discourse.
It’s dumb and delusional to claim that Barack Obama has attempted to impose a socialist tyranny on an unwitting electorate or that he has relentlessly pursued a radical redistributionist agenda of crushing taxes on the industrious and greater government largesse for the indolent. Yes, it’s true that the feds raised cigarette taxes early in the Obama administration but nicotine addiction and its corresponding costs afflict the poor far more heavily than the rich.
It’s also undeniable that Obamacare will raise taxes for many businesses and successful individuals but those increases hardly amount to a devastating blow like the new 75 percent top income tax rate in France, or represent the general imposition of European-style welfare-statism. It’s also a mistake to claim that Obama has taken from the rich to give to the poor since the welfare of society’s least fortunate has suffered dramatically under the this president’s leadership, with increased rates of poverty and homelessness, despite the big increases in government spending.
It’s both more accurate and more damning to point out that the Democrats have pushed the nation far deeper into debt to grow government, rather than claiming that they’ve taken from the rich to give to the poor—the poor have gotten next-to-nothing from Obanomics. Meanwhile, overall federal revenue as a percentage of GDP remains at 15.8 – well below the level of any of the eight full years (2001-8) of the Bush administration.
Aside from specific candidate claims that bear scant connection to reality, appropriately wary viewers should watch for devious narratives and ludicrous promises for the future that obscure the real and pressing issues.
If President Obama suggests that a stay-the-course approach of increased spending (or “investments” in Obama-speak) and expanded borrowing will guarantee increased momentum for our feeble, fragile recovery, he is telling lies.
And if Governor Romney claims that we need only repeal Obamacare, cut tax rates and deploy his fabled managerial skills to avert fiscal catastrophe, he is also lying.
Economists increasingly see the risk of renewed recession in 2013, regardless of which candidate wins the White House – especially if the lame-duck Congress fails in reaching some significant agreement to avert the fiscal cliff that looms on January 1, with simultaneous spending cuts and tax hikes across the board.
Both candidates should address this immediate and dire threat. The nation needs a serious discussion of the right course for the future – either a permanent expansion in government activism with a realistic means for paying for it, or a gradual, long-term reduction in government’s role in seizing and spending the wealth generated by the private sector.
The key words that both campaigns have shunned to date are “reform” and “cooperation.”
Most Americans long for both, but predicting Armageddon if the other-side wins some tenuous victory only increases the prospect that we’ll continue to suffer from polarized and paralyzed government. It also undermines the possibility that we’ll deal successfully with looming fiscal collapse in the two-and-a-half months of awkward interregnum between the election and inauguration.
The winner in the debate on Wednesday night will be the candidate who sounds most reasoned and reformist, not the one who does a better job at demonizing the opposition. One of these two guys will wake up on November 7th as the president elect, and it won’t help the country if you’ve convinced half of the electorate that if your opponent wins it spells doom for the American dream. As always, voters will reliably select pragmatism over partisanship, and the leader who offers reassurance more than revolution.
Naturally, that reassurance depends to some extent on deflecting and exposing the lies of the opposition or, better yet, acknowledging some of the lies that prevail on both sides, and sketching a credible path for a way ahead.