Sacrifice and the Campaign

The Democratic presidential campaign is getting … boring. Mostly, the candidates fuss at each other about minor gaffes. The candidates have at least two more debates scheduled—next week in Philadelphia before the April 22 Pennsylvania primary and one more before North Carolina in May. But it's a good bet that the candidates will avoid serious discussion on what to do about some of the biggest issues facing the United States. Why? Because any real solution requires sacrifice, and modern presidential candidates avoid calls for sacrifice like the plague.

Take global warming. Both Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are in favor of taking small steps to reduce greenhouse emissions, like a cap-and-trade program and a new Kyoto Protocol. But those are modest or mostly exhortatory steps, promises to do better by some distant date. Really doing something to cut the carbon entering the atmosphere would be expensive. It would require truly massive government spending on a Manhattan Project-scale to capture carbon and store it underground (theoretically possible but hard to do in a big way). Or really raising taxes on fuel consumption to reduce foreign dependency and get people to drive smaller cars less often. Serious efforts to deal with global warming would almost surely require economic sacrifice. A point or two less of GDP? What politician will call for that when the economy is already tanking?

Or take an honest look at defense spending. The military wants to increase the size of the Army and Marines in order to have enough troops to handle Iraq and the sorts of other messy nation-building exercises that are required of a superpower. Clinton and Obama want to get out of Iraq, but they talk about expanding the size of the armed forces. At the same time, the military wants to build expensive new weapons systems. Only the commander in chief can make choices here: do you try to do both, more troops and new weapons systems? One or the other? Hard choices. You won't likely hear the candidates discussing the painful choices that must be made: cutting a big weapons system or two like the Trident sub or the new advanced fighter or adding many, many billions to defense spending. They won't want to offend the military or the big defense contractors (and the jobs they represent in key states like Virginia).

At the present rate, Social Security and Medicare will consume the entire federal budget within a couple of decades, if not sooner. Does either candidate have a meaningful solution, i.e. either cutting benefits or raising revenues? Forget about it.

Obama and Clinton love to go on and on attacking the Washington special interests and vowing to face down their lobbyists. Really? Which ones? Here are two prime candidates: the farm lobby and the financial services lobby. With farm prices going up and up, this would be the perfect time to cut back on the billions in subsidies given farmers. Or maybe not: as an Obama adviser told me, "Advocate cutting farm subsidies before November of an election year? Are you kidding?" Wall Street faced a big hit last summer when the press began agitating to close a giant loophole that has been benefiting private-equity and hedge funds. So-called carried interest allows hedge funds to get their fees—income—treated as capital gains, taxed at a much lower rate. (Cost to the U.S. taxpayer: at least $6 billion.) Last June, former senator John Edwards, a populist, came out for closing the carried-interest loophole. Eventually, Obama did, too, then Clinton. But these candidates have barely mentioned the subject since. And there is a strong suspicion that Clinton came out against carried interest only after big Democratic contributors from Wall Street had been reassured not to worry—that the legislation to cut carried interest would never pass Congress.

There was a time when candidates dared to ask for sacrifice on the campaign trail. Before the 1968 Indiana primary, Robert F. Kennedy advocated expanding health care to the poor. He was asked by a University of Indiana medical student, "Who will pay for it?" Kennedy answered, "You will." The crowd gasped, then applauded. But that was a long time ago.