The Washington Post

The Democrats’ fairy-tale cam­paigns

- ROBERT J. SAMUELSON U.S. News · Politics · John F. Kennedy · Democratic Party (United States) · United States of America · Medicare · Donald Trump · Russia · China · Congressional Budget Office

“And so, my fel­low Amer­i­cans: Ask not what your coun­try can do for you — ask what you can do for your coun­try.” — John F. Kennedy’s in­au­gu­ral speech, Jan. 20, 1961

When one watches the Democrats’ pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns, it’s hard not to be struck by the huge gap that has opened up be­tween Kennedy’s goal and what or­di­nary Amer­i­cans now be­lieve and prac­tice. Kennedy urged us to be un­selfish, but broad sec­tors of the Amer­i­can pub­lic now re­pu­di­ate Kennedy’s rhetoric.

They ex­pect the gov­ern­ment (a.k.a. “the coun­try”) to do for them what they don’t want to do for them­selves or are in­ca­pable of do­ing. The re­sult is an air of un­re­al­ity to the cam­paigns, as if the en­er­getic ex­pan­sion of gov­ern­ment can solve most prob­lems and cure most de­fects of Amer­i­can democ­racy.

The lessons of the past do not seem to have been ab­sorbed or an­a­lyzed with sig­nif­i­cant rigor. Any­one who has paid the slight­est bit of at­ten­tion knows that gov­ern­ment has ex­panded sub­stan­tially over the past half-cen­tury.

Gov­ern­ment to­day does more things for more peo­ple than ever in U.S. his­tory. To de­scribe the change: In 1960, de­fense out­lays were 52 per­cent of to­tal fed­eral spend­ing; in 2018, the com­pa­ra­ble fig­ure was 15 per­cent. Still, we seem to have more prob­lems than ever re­quir­ing a whole new set of “so­lu­tions” to im­prove so­ci­ety — or, in prac­tice, make it worse.

Con­sider some of the ideas bran­dished by the var­i­ous can­di­dates: uni­ver­sal health cov­er­age, whether “Medi­care-for-all” or some other scheme; “free” col­lege at state schools; sub­si­dies for child

care; “in­fra­struc­ture” ex­pan­sion; across­the-board in­creases in teach­ers’ salaries; “baby bonds” (an­nual con­tri­bu­tions to sav­ings ac­counts of chil­dren); plans to con­trol cli­mate change.

Doubt­less, there will be more. What are we to make of this? Con­sider some ini­tial ob­ser­va­tions.

First, let’s ad­mit that some gov­ern­ment pro­grams do need “fix­ing.” But the pro­grams that most need it are the least likely to get it, be­cause they’re too pop­u­lar or too com­plex to change. The im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem is a mess. It nei­ther lim­its the flow of im­mi­grants nor promotes the as­sim­i­la­tion of those here.

Like­wise, spend­ing for older Amer­i­cans — mainly on So­cial Se­cu­rity and Medi­care — is crowd­ing out other pro­grams. To re­flect longer life ex­pectan­cies, el­i­gi­bil­ity ages should be grad­u­ally raised. Health­care spend­ing should be con­trolled for sim­i­lar rea­sons. But pro­pos­als to ad­dress th­ese prob­lems have been around for years with lit­tle ac­tion.

Se­cond, al­though the cam­paigns have focused on do­mes­tic is­sues, the most im­por­tant tasks of the next pres­i­dent will in­volve for­eign af­fairs — re­pair­ing the United States’ dam­aged rep­u­ta­tion with the rest of the world.

If Trump wins a se­cond term, this ob­vi­ously won’t hap­pen. But if he doesn’t, his suc­ces­sor will need to fo­cus in­tensely on strength­en­ing mil­i­tary al­liances, re­build­ing trade re­la­tions and deal­ing with potentiall­y hos­tile ac­tors — Rus­sia, China and rogue states. The United States re­mains the world’s most pow­er­ful na­tion, even if its eco­nomic, mil­i­tary and cul­tural power is much re­duced from its peak. Iso­la­tion­ism won’t work in a world so tightly in­ter­wo­ven.

Third, no mat­ter which Demo­crat wins in 2020 — as­sum­ing one does — many of the pro­pos­als now be­ing ped­dled by the hordes of hope­fuls will prob­a­bly not be adopted. The costs will prove too high. Re­call: Be­tween now and 2029, fed­eral bud­get deficits al­ready will to­tal about $11 tril­lion, ac­cord­ing to es­ti­mates by the Con­gres­sional Bud­get Of­fice. No one knows how much all the new pro­pos­als would cost, but the amount would prob­a­bly be in the trillions of dol­lars over a decade. Even if this were fully cov­ered by tax in­creases, the price would be enor­mous.

The con­clu­sion that emerges from this overview is that the cam­paigns — and re­mem­ber, we’re still about 18 months away from the elec­tion — are pro­mot­ing fairy tales. They con­cen­trate on a do­mes­tic agenda, a shop­ping list of lib­eral and pro­gres­sive fa­vorites, when the most press­ing is­sues and prob­lems fac­ing the next pres­i­dent will prob­a­bly in­volve for­eign af­fairs.

We can’t eas­ily judge who is best equipped for the job as it will ac­tu­ally evolve as op­posed to how we imag­ine it will evolve. There’s a fun­da­men­tal mis­match that re­veals a po­lit­i­cal cul­ture ex­actly the op­po­site of what Kennedy rec­om­mended. For too many years, Amer­i­cans have asked what their coun­try could do for them in­stead of what they could do for their coun­try.

There may be a fi­nal irony here. Even if some of the cam­paign prom­ises are adopted in the fu­ture, it seems un­likely, based on his­tor­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence, that they will pro­duce all of the de­sired ben­e­fits. This dis­ap­point­ment, if it oc­curs, may well be laid at the feet of gov­ern­ment’s strong­est ad­vo­cates.

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