2010: A Debt Odyssey

Rick Berman
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Posted: Jun 15, 2010 1:59 PM

As the national debt spirals out of control – it just passed the $13 trillion mark and shows no sign of slowing down – those up for election should heed one piece of advice: You ignore the debt at your own peril.

Gallup confirmed that in a poll earlier this month. They found that 79 percent of respondents described the federal deficit as “extremely serious” or “very serious.” That puts the federal deficit in a tie with terrorism and national security as the issue voters are most concerned about.

As Election Day nears, voters grow more and more concerned about the deficit. Last month, Scott Rasmussen found that 81 percent of Americans “view the size of the deficit as a major problem.” That’s no surprise, given the chaos in the European Union, where overspending by Greece has put that country at risk of national default.

Rush Limbaugh

Who do Americans blame for this country’s debt problems? Well, that’s a little more complicated.

Needless to say, there’s a partisan split when it comes to fingering the culprits. Seventy-nine percent of Democrats blame George W. Bush and the GOP, while 80 percent of Republicans polled blame President Obama and the Democrats. The all-important independents blame Republicans over Democrats 53 percent to 36 percent.

One of the recent primaries indicate that the national debt is certainly on voters’ minds. In Kentucky, Rand Paul was able to triumph over the Republican establishment’s choice in large part because of his avowed commitment to fiscal responsibility. His victory can, in part, be attributed to an anti-establishment attitude, but the grassroots, Tea Party-based support that he garnered largely coalesced around his anti-spending rhetoric. He supports raising the Social Security retirement age and praised the senator he is running to replace for blocking the extension of unemployment benefits earlier this year.

Given his post-primary gaffes – Paul refused to support the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on national television and described criticism of British Petroleum for their role in the Gulf Coast oil spill as “un-American” – it’s a sign of how deep public distrust of government spending is that the latest Rasmussen poll still has him leading Democrat Jack Conway by eight points. The Real Clear Politics average – including polls by Rasmussen, Daily Kos, and SurveyUSA – has Paul up by 5.7 percent.

As Michael Barone recently noted, three incumbents on appropriations committees have also been ousted in primaries: Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter, Utah’s Bob Bennett, and West Virginia’s Alan Mollohan all went down. Out-of-control spending has made those who hold the purse strings targets.

There will be plenty of spending cuts for candidates to focus on. The massive new health care spending law is predicted to add billions of dollars to the national debt, and the bill just keeps going up: The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office recently announced that health care reform will cost $115 billion more than they previously predicted.

So much for “bending the cost curve.”

While there is certainly a well of discontentment toward incumbents and the establishment, any candidates that fail to focus on the voter outrage regarding the flood of red ink have a political death wish. The numbers don’t lie.

Sixty three percent of voters want to see the health care bill repealed. Only 12 percent of voters think that health care reform will reduce the deficit. Perhaps most importantly, a scant 18 percent of Americans are willing to close the deficit by paying more in taxes.

What this means is that if candidates are serious about tackling the deficit, they’re going to have to be committed to making cuts, raising retirement ages, means-testing Social Security, and pushing for hard revisions to the budget that the current crop of legislators hasn’t had the stomach for.

What are the risks of a new crop of legislators continuing with business as usual? America could lose its AAA bond rating, making it far more expensive for Uncle Sam and every one of us to borrow money. We would dramatically increase a portion of our national wealth (a/k/a, “taxes”) to paying the interest on the debt.

Those who ignore the public’s push for fiscal sanity, while spending money we don’t have, will do so at their own peril.