Doug Elmendorf for Treasury Secretary
Note to Self: Potential Dealbreakers:

A Plea for Honesty in Campaigning

Bruce Bartlett pleads for honesty in campaigning, wishing that we lived in the Republic of Plato rather than here in the Sewer of Romulus:

Back to Square One: Voters should insist that McCain and Obama throw out their tax and spending plans and offer something that reflects current economic realities. These new plans must be more than vague generalities and should commit the next president to a course of action that involves real spending cuts and real tax increases.

Of course, the idea of a candidate telling voters that they will suffer if he is elected runs counter to every political instinct. But it is not necessarily politically fatal. In 1992, Bill Clinton put forward a fairly detailed list of spending cuts and tax increases and was, nevertheless, elected.

The trick will be getting both Obama and McCain to put forward budget restructuring packages so one isn't unfairly penalized for his honesty. People deserve to know whether the next president thinks we only need to raise taxes on the rich or only need to eliminate earmarks in the budget to solve our fiscal problems. This will tell them whether the next president is a serious person or intellectually dishonest about the nature of the nation's fiscal problem.

It would be useful for both candidates to work from the same benchmark, such as reducing the projected deficit by $1 trillion over 10 years. That would pretty much eliminate the use of "smoke and mirrors" and unserious proposals. If one candidate wants to raise taxes by, say, $1 trillion, then he should say so and spell out how. If he thinks we can get $1 trillion out of the income tax without burdening middle- and lower-income workers, let's hear how. If he thinks we can cut spending by that much, he should explain how. If he thinks it can be done without significantly cutting popular programs such as Medicare, I for one would like to know how. Perhaps a consortium of think tanks would agree to jointly score the plans for honesty and accuracy.

Realistically, a deficit reduction package of the magnitude that I suggest would require a variety of tax increases and spending cuts, including cuts in entitlements and appropriated funds. It's probably realistic to assume that the balance would be roughly 50-50 between taxes and spending, though each candidate could offer a different balance. But if the proposed package is so one-sided as to make enactment by Congress impossible, this is also useful information for voters.

The time for free lunches is past. We must get McCain and Obama to put forward new economic plans. The people deserve to know what is really going to happen in January, and our next president should know whether voters support his vision. With an electoral mandate, quick action in Congress may be possible. And right now we need quick and decisive action if we are to right the economy.