Harry Truman famously kept a small sign on his desk proclaiming that The Buck Stops Here. The sign refers to the expression “pass the buck,” which means passing the responsibility on to someone else. In his farewell address to the American people, President Truman specifically referred to this concept: “The President — whoever he is — has to decide. He can’t pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That’s his job.”
Sadly, President Truman has not had many imitators in this regard — in either party. Politics today is largely about passing the buck. In more contemporary language, it’s about kicking the can down the road.
In that respect, at least, Mitt Romney’s selection of Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as his running mate is very good news indeed. To this point, the entire presidential election cycle has been about avoiding the obvious. It’s as if the candidates all think that the electorate is stupid with respect to budgetary and deficit realities.
The Democrats would have us believe that raising taxes on “the rich” (however defined, although most seem to think it’s people making more than they do) will get the job done. In general, Republicans would have us believe that cutting taxes and a few wasteful discretionary government programs will solve our problems. The Republicans would have us believe that further stimulus won’t help while the Democrats have given us no reason to think that deficit reduction will ever be a priority. Those claims and arguments are specious in the extreme.
Before his selection of Rep. Ryan, Gov. Romney’s campaign has been predicated upon the idea that this election is specifically and entirely a referendum on President Obama, his policies and his leadership. Instead, Ryan’s nomination is a clear signal that the referendum approach wasn’t working and wasn’t deemed good enough. The election will now be cast as a clear choice about policies and the future. According to the inside-the-beltway crowd, the Democrats are thrilled (Axelrod; Begala; Krugman)at the prospect.
I’m not so sure they should be.
The so-called “Ryan budget” will become a focal point of this campaign. That budget proposal surely has holes (see David Stockman’s critique here) and makes assumptions about revenue growth and budget cuts that are open to severe question as is its effectiveness at cutting the deficit (CBO; Tax Policy Center). It does not deal with waste in the Pentagon and elsewhere. It makes policy choices that few will readily be comfortable with. However, Rep. Ryan’s rough outline is a clear improvement over the President’s “budget” (never intended to be taken seriously and rejected unanimously by his own party, essentially never to be mentioned again) and infinitesimally better than anything done by Congressional Democrats, who won’t even offer a budget in the Senate.
Most importantly, the Ryan budget demands a discussion of entitlement spending and its unsustainability. Pretending that serious budgetary changes are not necessary — kicking the can down the road — makes no logical or mathematical sense and is horribly unfair to our children (more here). To the extent that the current debate is forced to consider difficult and necessary choices — choices that few of us like or even wish to acknowledge — the better off we’ll be. Even if you reject his proffered solutions, Paul Ryan’s entry into the presidential election dynamic has to be a good thing for our children and for the future.
Difficult choices will have to be made. The process will begin by discussing those choices and acknowledging the difficulty of the task. We cannot afford to keep kicking the can down the road.