For both parties, substantive issues a low priority

Posted: Nov 08, 2006 8:01 AM
For both parties, substantive issues a low priority

WASHINGTON -- The elections are over, and now comes the hard part to correct all the problems the politicians rail against in their campaigns -- but never get around to fixing.

If you voted in the hope of getting some quick solutions to the problems faced here at home, don't hold your breath. Many, if not most, of the politicians who make their living complaining about these things haven't the foggiest idea how to fix them. And among those who think they do, the cure can be worse than the illness.

Clearly, health-care coverage for some 46 million Americans who are uninsured remains a huge and growing problem, one that is argued over election after election. But I did not hear a clear, workable proposal in any campaign about what should be done.

In fact, state chairmen in both parties told me they heard voters complain that too often the candidates got sidetracked by silly and marginal issues and didn't deal with the serious problems on voters' minds -- like health care, job creation or Social Security reform.

In the raft of Democratic campaign ads, I saw a seemingly endless number of gratuitous guilt-by-association attack ads that sought to identify the GOP candidates with President Bush. But if there were any TV ads (in either party) that suggested we could help the uninsured by doing x, y and z, I didn't see one.

Here's an idea for a partial fix: Let the uninsured deduct their medical-care costs from their annual tax bill, the same way we allow homeowners to deduct the interest paid on their equity loans.

Elections that do not deal with substantive issues will not produce the mandate needed to address them. A national debate over health-care reforms, I'm afraid, will have to await the 2008 presidential election.

We also heard a lot of complaints about the economy in this election when, in fact, it is doing quite well. A majority of Americans apparently didn't think so, but a Pew poll just before Election Day said 44 percent of Americans rated the economy excellent or good, with most of the rest calling it fair or poor. It was hard to reconcile the public's sour election-year mood about the economy when we saw the unemployment rate falling to a low 4.4 percent in October. Some states don't have it so good, of course, like Michigan and Mississippi, where the jobless number is more than 7 percent. But the overall job picture remains quite good -- there are labor shortages in many areas -- from health care to agriculture.

The country's broader economic health chart remains strong, too, said David Malpass, chief economist at Bear, Stearns & Co. He pointed to strong tax receipts through October (which is shrinking the budget deficit faster than anyone imagined), continued business profit growth and stock-market gains that are going through the roof, putting additional wealth in worker pension funds. Hourly earnings increased a stronger-than-expected 0.4 percent in October, rising 3.9 percent over last year.

"We anticipate solid economic growth at least into the first part of 2007," he told his clients last week.

But many Democrats who won Tuesday will be coming to Washington thinking the economy needs fixing. Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi wants to raise taxes on investors, the people who have been financing the nation's economic expansion. Others want to push the minimum wage to more than $7 in one fell swoop, crushing small businesses and eliminating a lot of entry-level jobs in the process.

Democratic adviser James Carville, in a strategy letter to party activists and officials last week, said the core of the Democrats' economic agenda was to "kick the crony capitalists" out of Congress. So now the Democrats are against free-market capitalism, too?

Hold on to your wallet, because Carville -- a successful capitalist himself in the seven-figure political lobbying business -- and his party want to tax more of what you've got.

Speaking of people who are against capitalism, the financial system that has made America the strongest economy on the planet, I did not hear any Democrats talk about "economic growth" in their campaigns.

Growth has to be at the center of any discussion about job creation, new business formation and allowing workers to create wealth. But the Pelosi/Democratic agenda seems to be anti-growth.

Corporate profits? Tax them harder. Oil exploration for energy independence? Impose disincentives to explore, drill and refine by taxing them more. Small-business people who are just getting started and want to hire more workers? Impose a job-killing higher minimum wage that makes expansion unaffordable. Stock dividends that provide retired workers with pension income? Raise taxes on that, too.

It is, of course, impossible to predict what will actually happen in the next Congress, but, according to my count, the bad ideas outnumber the good ones.