Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012 | 2 a.m.
After all the speeches and all the ads, Americans have heard almost no honest talk about where the country has been, where the country needs to go and how the country must get there.
What matters Tuesday in the presidential race is big. Presidents get to make foreign policy, appoint judges and decide just how hard or soft the hand of the executive branch will be on the country. But unless attitudes change in Washington and much of the country, we will be no closer four years from now to solving our many problems.
President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney both might fail to get 50 percent of the popular vote, which hasn’t happened with the major-party candidates since 2000. The winner in the Electoral College could lose the popular vote.
Whatever happens, the winner won’t be able to call it a victory for his policies. Only four presidents since 1900 have won 60 percent of the popular vote, topped by Lyndon Johnson’s 61 percent in 1964 that was in large part a eulogy for the assassinated John F. Kennedy.
To hear candidates at all levels, though, you would think that it’s all about their ideas and that our problems are relatively simple. Cut some taxes. Invest in “clean” energy. End some regulations. Bring back manufacturing. Rekindle American exceptionalism. End the wars. Protect Social Security and Medicare for our children and grandchildren.
In fact, the problems are anything but simple. And the election will deliver to the next president and Congress this conflicted message from the voters: We’re nearly split on whatever talking points you offered, and we aren’t sure that we want to hear the truth anyway.
The first part of the message comes from the narrow national results. The second part comes from a recent Pew Research Center survey, which reported that most Americans favor higher taxes on the rich — and not much else — to solve the nation’s financial problems.
To make progress over the next four years, though, both parties will have to tell their voters what they won’t want to hear. As in:
Democrats will have to say that Social Security and Medicare need to be changed and must propose reforms that would affect those who are getting benefits now. For all the campaigns’ focus on seniors, net worth for those 65 and over went up 42 percent between 1984 and 2009, according to the Federal Reserve. For almost all other groups, net worth declined.
Republicans will have to say that taxes must increase. The top 1 percent of Americans got 23.5 percent of the benefits, just through 2010, from the 2001 tax cuts. If supply-side economics worked, we wouldn’t then have had the financial crisis. And for all the talk of cutting the corporate income tax, the percentage of federal revenue from the corporate tax was just 1.3 percent in 2010. In 1966, it was 4 percent.
If neither party budges on those points, we’re stuck, and stuck soon. The country is about to hit the debt ceiling again, drastic tax increases and spending cuts are to take effect Jan. 1, and the bond rating agencies are watching. So to review:
In January 2001, the Congressional Budget Office forecast that by 2006 the United States would have paid off its debt, and by 2011 would have a $2.3 trillion surplus. Then came tax cuts, two wars, a Medicare drug plan, the financial panic and the bailout to keep recession from becoming depression. Many of those actions were bipartisan. Every objective study shows that President Obama’s policies have contributed comparatively little to the $16 trillion debt. At the same time, President Obama has offered almost nothing in the way of specifics to reduce the debt.
In today’s media world, Americans can find outlets that reinforce their beliefs, regardless of facts. For example: Who holds the bulk of America’s debt? China? Nope. Americans. The nation will make no progress on big issues until enough Americans question their own firmly held assumptions, reasonably agree on what reality is and demand that the parties work together.
For now, we get Romney campaigning in Florida about how bad things still are while Gov. Rick Scott touts Florida’s unemployment decline and housing rebound. We get Democrats pretending that no senior needs to surrender any portion of his or her Medicare benefits. We get Obama haters avoiding the legitimate criticism of the president and casting him as some sort of America-hating enemy of free enterprise. Since the Dow has nearly doubled on his watch, the president must be a very ineffective radical.
Yes, someone will win the presidential race, but the $2 billion campaign still will produce pretty much a tie. Politics is how one party gets to govern. We have plenty of politics. The party that learns how to govern — after throwing away the talking points — is the one that breaks the tie.
Randy Schultz is editor of the editorial page of the Palm Beach Post in Florida.