- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 28, 2019

The ever-expanding national debt and annual federal deficits approaching $1 trillion are at the bottom of voters’ priority lists heading into 2020 amid calls for free programs from Democratic candidates.

Far-left candidates such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernard Sanders of Vermont have faced pressure to explain how they plan to pay for their proposals for free college, universal health care and more, but explicit calls to reduce deficits have proved to be tough sells, even as voters acknowledge the problem.

“That is the quietest 800-pound gorilla in the country,” said Joe Normandy, 65, a Republican voter in the Northern Virginia community of Catharpin. “If we don’t get a handle on that, the country is going to experience very severe, unpopular issues in order to solve it downstream.”

Mr. Normandy, an executive at a nonprofit group, acknowledged that “free stuff” is easier to sell than belt-tightening.

“But nothing’s free,” he said. “There’s no such thing as free, and younger people gravitate to the word ‘free.’”

In a Gallup poll released last month, just 2% of U.S. adults named the federal budget deficit or debt as the most important issue facing the country. That number has essentially held steady since April.

“Unlike in past years, there really is no discussion of the budget at all. The debt … [there’s] not even an acknowledgment that it’s a problem,” said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a fiscal watchdog group.

Mr. Bixby pointed out that the deficit was a huge issue in the 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns and that George W. Bush battled with Al Gore and Mr. Gore’s “lockbox” in 2000 over how to preserve a now-unthinkable federal budget surplus.

“Its salience on the political agenda is way down,” he said. “No matter who becomes the next president, the current incumbent or whoever, [they’re] going to have to deal with a deficit over a trillion dollars and rising, and they’re not talking about that at all.”

The national debt recently surpassed $23 trillion. The Congressional Budget Office, Congress’ official budget scorekeeper, reported that the government closed fiscal 2019 with a $984 billion deficit — the biggest since 2012.

The CBO has projected that the deficit will top $1.3 trillion by 2029.

Mr. Trump pledged on the campaign trail in 2016 that he would wipe out the entire national debt within eight years. Instead, the debt has risen more than $4 trillion since he took office.

The president said this week in an interview with Bill O’Reilly that it would be easy to bring down the debt in his second term. He said a lot of the current spending is on the military.

“We’ve had to rebuild the military, we had to fix our country, and when I’m ready to go, it will be very easy to bring down costs,” he said. “We’re building a wall along the Mexican border. We need that wall desperately. … The Democrats want to have open borders.”

Some liberals have gravitated toward “Modern Monetary Theory,” which says the national debt and federal deficits essentially don’t matter under certain circumstances.

Anthony Rogers-Wright, a policy coordinator with the Climate Justice Alliance, said people don’t have a grasp of the issue’s scope because the national debt isn’t something that materially affects their everyday lives.

“The deficit is widening, China’s buying our debt and, for the most part, it’s business as usual. We’re getting into our cars, we’re flying in planes, we’re going on vacations,” he said. “I don’t think that people grasp what it actually means because we’re finding a way to keep our military going, we’re finding a way to keep our government running.”

Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, did vow to Iowa voters this month that his proposals on health care and education wouldn’t add to the deficit.

“Everything that I promise we are going to do in this campaign, I will also explain how we are going to pay for it,” he told a crowd at an Elks Lodge in Charles City. “It will always even out so that the deficit either gets smaller or at the very worst doesn’t get bigger.”

Mr. Buttigieg said he has been “really measured” in his campaign promises and that he is willing to raise the revenue through tax policy to support his plans.

“I think it’s important, and I think the Democratic Party needs to accept responsibility for this because the folks on the other side have made it clear they are just not going to,” he said.

Mr. Buttigieg, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden and other candidates have pressed Ms. Warren to explain how she plans to pay for her universal “Medicare for All” health care proposal.

But the debate among the Democrats on health care has shifted away from where fiscal hawks want to see it. Budget analysts say runaway spending on entitlement programs such as Medicare is the chief driver of the national debt.

Ms. Warren, Mr. Sanders and Mr. Buttigieg also have called for an expansion of Social Security benefits.

“Well, nobody wants to talk about things being taken away, right?” said Peggy Chenoweth, 65, a registered Democrat. “I mean, it’s a lot easier to run on a platform of ‘you’re going to get, you’re going to get, you’re going to get’ and kind of pass the buck.”

On the Republican side, former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford tried to emphasize federal spending and the national debt as the top focus of his brief primary challenge to President Trump, but neither his campaign nor the issue gained much traction despite an ever-worsening fiscal picture.

On Capitol Hill, spending has been the only area where lawmakers from both parties have found agreement in recent years.

Lawmakers crossed the aisle to lift strict spending caps that were the products of a 2011 debt ceiling deal. While much maligned, the caps managed to produce two straight years of reductions in federal spending for the first time since the 1950s.

The current budget battle is over how to divvy up roughly $300 billion in additional spending allowed by a two-year deal lawmakers struck over the summer.

Early in the current congressional session, liberal lawmakers pushed to abandon “pay as you go” provisions in House rules that would require new spending to be offset elsewhere.

Members of the moderate Blue Dog caucus recently complained to their Democratic leaders that committees have waived the “pay-go” rules out of convenience and that lawmakers needed to take a stand.

“Because the Republican Party abandoned fiscal discipline last Congress by passing a tax bill that costs trillions of dollars, it is more necessary than ever that we, as Democrats, uphold our pledge to be fiscally responsible,” the members wrote.

But there is little evidence that their constituents feel the same way, and Mr. Trump’s supporters say he is doing his best to balance the needs of the country with the sea of red ink.

“I think that’s still a huge problem,” said Diane Davis, 45, a retired geologist from Ashburn, Virginia. “In Trump’s mind, he is a businessman and he’s looking at trying to fix a lot of the wrongs that have been done, try to bring more money back into this country which, in turn, will help the debt.”

She called free college and similar proposals “pie in the sky” stuff.

“I don’t expect a free handout from the government to put my kid through college,” she said. “And nobody should.”

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