The American public is caught between a flake and politics as usual. This is hardly an unprecedented situation in American politics. There have been plenty of flakes--some of them presidents--and there has been lots of politics as usual. Unfortunately, the stakes are higher now. The ship of state is headed for the Chapter 11 shoals in a hurry.
Poll after poll shows that the American people sense that our economy is on the wrong track. Common sense is a powerful campaigner, and common sense dictates that a country that spends itself deep into debt is eventually in for trouble.
The collective awakening to our economic dilemma is at least a positive step. What's not positive--and may be ultimately dangerous--is the lack of an electoral channel for this revelation. Ross Perot, who has done so much to create the newfound awareness, is still the only visible politician with credibility on the issue.
America desperately needs a politician with Perot's fiscal responsibility but without his questionable temperament, assorted reactionary views and general mild insanity.
For those deluded Clinton supporters who thought the Arkansan was that man: The party's over. President Clinton is now politics as usual, at least as far as the national debt is concerned. This is despite a serious PR effort to make himself into a deficit hawk.
Throughout his first months in office and most obviously during the budget battle, Clinton has shamelessly sought to assume Perot's mantle of fiscal responsibility. He now uses colorful charts in his speeches and deficit-cutting has become central to his economic schpiel.
But his actions don't measure up. During the next four years, his budget will raise the national debt by at least a trillion dollars, spinning the country farther into the cycle of debt and interest payments that are choking the government's flexibility.
Clinton sugarcoats this reality with deceptive statistics and reassuring language. He wants the American people to believe he is "paying down the debt," when he is actually increasing it substantially, from four trillion dollars to over five trillion. Clinton and his advisers mix the concepts of debt and deficit in an effort to make their temporary deficit decreases look like progress on the debt.
To review an Ec 10 lesson, the deficit is the annual difference between government income and government spending. Reducing the deficit only slows the growth of the debt, in this case from over $300 billion a year to around $200 billion. But even this decrease is temporary and relies on Congress sticking to all of the cuts and taxes enumerated in the package. The budget deal of 1990 also claimed it would achieve $500 billion in deficit reduction. Clinton's spin doctors have managed to make this minor and ephemeral achievement seem like an heroic deed.
But for all his reassuring rhetoric, even Clinton sees the need for more savings than his budget offers. He points to other aspects of his domestic package, particularly health care, as further mechanisms for conquering the debt.
The idea that Clinton's health care reform will be a cost-saving measure is ridiculous--regardless of the merits of the plan itself. Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan calls the belief that the health care plan will save money "a fantasy." You simply cannot insure millions of currently uninsured people without significant cost, much of it on the government's tab.
The Republicans, for all their noble rhetoric during the budget battle, are no better. Despite their gripes about the Clinton budget, they produced little in the way of an alternative. Republican ringleader Bob Dole has clearly been revitalized by a Democratic president. But it hasn't been a productive revitalization. He glories in needling the Democrats, not in making positive change.
The darling of progressive Republicans, Jack Kemp, also comes up short. While refreshingly different on some issues--notably race relations--his political program fails to address constructively the dangers of the debt. The literature of his political interest group, Empower America, does little more than rehash traditional Republican excuses for their part in the debt explosion.
Even political groups expressly devoted to remaking the government's spending habits have been curiously muted. The Concord Coalition, led by former senators Warren Rudman and Paul Tsongas, only came out with an alternative budget weeks ago, long after Congress passed the Clinton budget.
When asked during the budget debate why the coalition wasn't more actively opposing the plan, Rudman said he had no desire to be a "roadblock." But roadblocks are just what we need--roadblocks to plans that aren't serious. Rather than being a meaningful participant in the debate, the Concord Coalition has settled for a place on the margin.
This lack of leadership on the issue leaves the American people with unsavory choices. They can join the demagogic Perot or hold out hope that the major parties can change. If that slim hope doesn't materialize, many voters who are serious about the debt will turn to the only other alternative.
And what an alternative it is. Perot's disqualifications for the presidency are numerous. He has demonstrated a public personality that lacks any vestige of the calm, rational mind the country needs in its head of state. When asked probing questions, he bristles and barks about how the media is out to get him. This kind of behavior casts serious doubt on whether he has the ability to handle the pressures of the presidency.
Perot also has the unique ability to "forget" specific plans on days he is asked about them, a charade he has pulled off multiple times. For a man who claims to have the substance other candidates lack, such behavior is the ultimate in cynicism.
His expertise on foreign affairs seems limited to an in-depth knowledge of the Mexican "job-sucking" worker. Perot's main contribution on foreign policy was this gem in one of last year's presidential debates: "China is a large country with many provinces." Undeniably true, but even the domestically-oriented Clinton managed more insight.
Despite all these visible failings, Perot received 19 percent of the vote in last year's election, even after his ramblings about his daughter's wedding and paramilitary assaults on his home. This display of support demonstrates both the peoples' desire for straight talk and their frustration with the major parties.
It also should serve as a wake up call to politicians: Get serious or get Ross.