There are plenty of reasons to be cynical about the 2016 US presidential election. For one thing, both major parties’ candidates hold record disapproval ratings. But even worse than that, this campaign has become petty and personal, at the expense of meaningful discussion on key issues like the national debt.
Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton talk a big game on reining-in the federal deficit, but independent observers have criticized both of their fiscal plans for relying on optimistic projections and failing to address the looming entitlement crisis.
Things weren’t always like this. It was not so long ago that debt and deficits were at the heart of the discussion in a presidential election. In 2000, both Vice President Al Gore and Governor George W. Bush had concrete plans to pay off the national debt in a set timeframe. Gore even promised to pay the $5 trillion national debt in full by 2012. So, what happened?
Put simply, we all got distracted. The 2000s were one thing after another: terrorism, war, the subprime mortgage crisis and the resulting institutional meltdown. All the while, the national debt kept rising at an ever-faster rate.
Quietly, the debt ticked up to $10 trillion under President Bush. Under President Obama, it has now surpassed $19 trillion and rising, a figure that should terrify anyone young enough to be facing the threat of actually having to pay it back.
And where are today’s candidates on this issue? Donald Trump’s tax plan, although ambitious, would create a budgetary chasm unless it were accompanied by deep and permanent cuts in social and military spending. Considering the composition and track record of the US Congress, his chances of passing those kinds of spending reforms are very low.
Hillary Clinton’s full-throated embrace of Bernie Sanders’ “soak the rich” ideology has her promising to take on Wall Street bonuses instead of presenting real solutions for deficit reduction. And that’s a perfectly rational thing for her to do, because those shallow, populist positions nearly led a socialist crank to unseat her for the Democratic nomination.
If the electorate is more concerned with wedge issues like bank executives’ salaries, candidates will continue to ignore the existential threat of the national debt. That’s why pressure organizations like Generation Screwed are so important - they direct the public discussion away from these fleeting distractions and back toward the critical issues of public spending and debt.
In 1992, Democratic Senator Paul Tsongas ran for president on a platform of fiscal restraint and debt reduction. After he was upset in the primaries by eventual winner Bill Clinton, he kept up the fight by forming the Concord Coalition, a budget watchdog group in the US that continues to push candidates to make clear, realistic plans for debt reduction.
Other contenders criticized Tsongas as a single-issue candidate, as though that’s something to be ashamed of. William Wilberforce was a single-issue candidate too, and he succeeded in changing the course of human history for the better through his singular focus on an issue he cared about. America could use more candidates with such moral clarity and consistency.
Trying times call for exceptional leadership. Unfortunately, I just don’t see that on offer this year.