- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 12, 2004

Too many important policy issues are unlikely to be addressed by major party candidates in this year’s presidential campaign.

As of the recent Republican Convention, Sen. John Kerry had chosen to differ with President Bush on only a few important issues: Who should be president? How much should be spent on health care? And what should be the top marginal income tax rates?

But for a number of important issues, there seems little prospect of an informed debate in this year’s campaign:

(1) The budget deficit: President Bush’s budget for fiscal 2005 projects the deficit will decline about half by fiscal 2009.

But this budget is very misleading. It included no funds for continued 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 those projected budget outcomes may be desirable, they are not credible. Mr. Bush previously supported large increases in spending for agriculture, defense, education, energy, home security, Medicare, space, and transportation — and he has yet to veto a single bill. In short, Mr. Bush has no plan to reduce the deficit.

Mr. Kerry has made no comprehensive budget proposal. However, an analysis by the National Taxpayers Union Foundation estimates Mr. Kerry’s spending proposals would rise 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 incomes. In short, Mr. Kerry also has no plan to cut the deficit.

(2) Social Security, Medicare fiscal explosion: Mr. Bush previously promised to propose some Social Security choice option during a second term, and he repeated this general promise during his acceptance speech. In one of his strongest statements, Mr. Kerry said he would never consider any Social Security choice option, adding some “tweaking” of Social Security benefits or taxes would restore solvency. So we may have a serious debate on Social Security. But I doubt it.

Neither George Bush nor John Kerry has addressed the much larger and more complex problem of Medicare. Meanwhile, of course, both Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry supported the large unfunded coverage of prescription drugs as a Medicare benefit. And the Bush administration 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 several hundred billion dollars for 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 Mr. Bush nor Mr. 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 8 million to 9 million undocumented residents in an ambiguous legal status. America is a land of immigrants, most of whom have proved 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, 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 Mr. Kerry voted in the Senate for both the Iraq war resolution and the Patriot Act. For either Mr. Bush or Mr. Kerry to make a major issue of these measures, he would have to admit his prior judgment was a mistake. Mr. Kerry has come close to such an admission, at various times saying he would have made the same decision as President Bush and recently that the war in Iraq “was the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

So it remains unclear where he stands on this critical issue. Mr. Kerry does not yet appear to be ready to debate Mr. Bush 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 using U.S. military forces, and the most effective means consistent with our values to counter the continued terrorism threat. One might hope this would be a central focus of the 2004 presidential campaign, but that does not seem to be in prospect. This debate may have to develop first outside the political process so the next generation of political leaders will be encouraged to recognize the dangers of the establishment consensus on these issues.

William A. Niskanen, Cato Institute chairman, was President Reagan’s acting chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers.

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