Deficit Hawks Rule the Debates

During a 90 minute debate, moderators can ask somewhere in the neighborhood of 8-10 questions. That’s why it is interesting that one organization was able to get the moderators to ask the same 2 questions of both the vice-presidential and presidential candidates. The organization is the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and the questions were about addressing the federal debt and projected shortfalls in entitlement programs. Elaine Quijano asked Kaine and Pence to address these two questions and Chris Wallace brought them up again last night.

On both occasions, these questions were asked matter-of-factly as if everyone agreed that reducing the federal debt is a priority and that our entitlement programs are in a state of crisis. While you might agree with one or both of those, they are hardly settled fact. The problem with the way these questions were framed lies in the assumption that they should be prioritized over other actual crises. Here is how Paul Krugman responded to their inclusion last night.

Over all, Chris Wallace was better than I expected. But he was pretty bad on fiscal issues.

First of all, still obsessing over the debt? Still taking leads from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget? Federal debt simply isn’t a pressing issue; there is no possible reason to make a big deal about it while neglecting climate change, where every year that action is delayed makes the problem harder to solve.

On the question about entitlements, take a look at how Chris Wallace framed it to Clinton.

The one last area I want to get into with you in this debate is the fact that the biggest driver of our debt is entitlements, which is 60 percent of all federal spending. Now, the Committee for federal — a Responsible Federal Budget has looked at both of your plans and they say neither of you has a serious plan that is going to solve the fact that Medicare’s going to run out of money in the 2020s, Social Security is going to run out of money in the 2030s, and at that time, recipients are going to take huge cuts in their benefits…

Secretary Clinton, same question, because at this point, Social Security and Medicare are going to run out, the trust funds are going to run out of money. Will you as president entertain — will you consider a grand bargain, a deal that includes both tax increases and benefit cuts to try to save both programs?

Mark Schmitt gives us an example of how a question on climate change framed with the same kind of liberal bias might look.

Imagine a question such as this: “According to the nonpartisan Sierra Club, unless we reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million, climate change will be catastrophic. What kind of carbon tax or cap-and-trade plan would you propose to avoid this result?”

Last spring President Obama told Jeffrey Goldberg that, when it comes to the military, “there’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment.” I would propose that there is also a Washington playbook that comes out of the deficit hawk establishment (primarily the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget) from which everyone is expected to play. Just as Obama noted that the proscribed responses of the foreign policy hawks work in certain situations, the same might be said for the proscriptions of the deficit hawks. But to assume – as these debate moderators did – that they are always correct and always supersede other priorities is as dangerous as assuming that a military response is the best option in every situation.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.