Commentary

What the Presidential Candidates Aren’t Talking About

By William A. Niskanen
September 1, 2004

Too many important policy issues are not likely to be addressed by the major party candidates in this year’s presidential campaign. As of this week’s Republican convention, Senator Kerry has chosen to differ with President Bush on only a few important issues: Who should be president? How much to spend on health care? And, what should be the top marginal income tax rates? But there are a number of important policy issues about which there seems to be little prospect of an informed debate during this year’s campaign.

  1. The Budget Deficit

    President Bush’s budget for FY 2005 projects that the deficit will decline by about half by FY 2009, but this budget is very misleading. His budget includes no funds for the military and reconstruction activities in Afghanistan and Iraq. No funds for the recent broadening of Medicare to cover obesity therapies. And no increase in nominal nondefense discretionary spending over the next five years. Although these projected budget outcomes may be desirable, they are not credible.

    President Bush had previously supported large increases in spending for agriculture, defense, education, energy, home security, Medicare, and transportation — and he has yet to veto a single bill. In short, Bush has no plan to reduce the deficit.

    Senator Kerry has made no comprehensive budget proposal. An analysis by the National Taxpayers Union Foundation, however, estimates that Kerry’s spending proposals would increase total federal spending by about $226 billion in the first year, far higher than the increased revenues from his proposal to restore the pre-Bush income tax rates on the highest income taxpayers. In short, Kerry also has no plan to reduce the deficit.
  2. Fiscal Explosion of Social Security and Medicare Expenditures

    President Bush had promised to propose some Social Security choice option during a second term; he has said little of this issue during the campaign, however, so he is not likely to have a mandate for whatever he may propose. In one of his strongest statements, Senator Kerry said that he would never consider any reduction of Social Security benefits. So we are unlikely to have a debate on this important issue during the campaign.

    Neither Bush nor Kerry have addressed the much larger and more complex problem of Medicare. In the meantime, of course, both Bush and Kerry supported the large unfunded coverage of prescription drugs as a Medicare benefit, and the Bush administration has recently added an unfunded coverage for obesity therapies as a Medicare benefit without any specific legislative authority.

    The huge fiscal imbalance of Social Security and Medicare increases by several hundred billion dollars each year that a major reform of these programs is not addressed.
  3. Immigration

    President Bush has considered a major reform of our laws affecting immigration and undocumented residents, but neither Bush nor Kerry has addressed this issue during the campaign. In the meantime, we still have a net inflow of about 350,000 illegal immigrants a year and maybe eight to nine million undocumented residents who have an ambiguous legal status. America is a land of immigrants, most of whom have proved to be responsible individuals and good citizens. We owe the same welcome and legal clarity to the current and recent immigrants in search of the American dream.
  4. U.S. Security Policy and Civil Liberties

    The most divisive measures initiated by the Bush administration have been the Iraq war and the Patriot Act. There is likely to be little discussion of these issues in the campaign because Senator Kerry voted for both the Iraq war resolution and the Patriot Act. For either Bush or Kerry to make a major issue of these measures, they would have to admit that their prior judgment was a mistake — a most unlikely outcome. So there will be no debate between the major party presidential candidates on whether the war in Iraq was necessary to protect America’s vital interests or whether the Patriot Act was a necessary restriction on our civil liberties.

    We need a major national debate about the orientation of U.S. foreign policy after the Cold War, the conditions for the use of U.S. military forces, and the most effective means consistent with our shared values to counter the continued threat of terrorism. One might hope that this would be a central focus of the 2004 presidential campaign, but that does not now seem to be in prospect. This debate may have to develop first outside of the political process to encourage the next generation of political leaders to recognize the dangers of the establishment consensus on these issues.
William A. Niskanen, chairman of the Cato Institute, was the acting chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Reagan.