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Opinion: Columnists

The other debate losers: Americans who want to tackle the debt

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Opinion,Philip Klein,Columnists,Campaign 2012,Politics Digest

President Obama wasn't the only loser in last week's presidential debate. The others were Americans who want to get the nation's unsustainable debt under control.

For decades, as the nation's debt has exploded, America's fiscal debate has been fought between Democrats who won't admit that their welfare state vision requires massive, across-the-board tax increases and Republicans who have fought to keep tax rates low but are unwilling to seriously rein in the welfare state.

As president, Obama has consistently promised to break this historical cycle by making "tough choices," but in practice, he has consistently avoided them.

In February 2009, Obama's first major act as president was to sign an economic stimulus package then valued at $787 billion. The following week, he held a fiscal summit in the White House in which he pledged to cut the deficit in half in his first term, and then unveiled his first budget, titled "A New Era of Fiscal Responsibility." Last week, the Congressional Budget Office reported that the federal government ran a $1.1 trillion deficit in fiscal year 2012, making it official that Obama broke his first-term deficit pledge.

During last week's debate, Obama boasted, "I've put forward a specific $4 trillion deficit-reduction plan." But the so-called plan doesn't hold up to much scrutiny.

The proposal includes $1 trillion in spending cuts that had already been signed into law as part of the debt ceiling agreement and $1.1 trillion in imaginary war savings based on the assumption that the United States would have otherwise maintained a full troop presence in Iraq and Afghanistan in perpetuity.

Though Obama's proposal does call for additional cuts to Medicare and other mandatory spending programs totaling $577 billion, this is mostly offset by his call for an additional $447 billion in economic stimulus spending. So, even using Obama's numbers, his proposed new spending cuts come to roughly $130 billion on a net basis, or less than 5 percent of his alleged deficit reduction. The rest comes from claiming $1.6 trillion in new revenue from tax increases and $624 billion from reducing interest payments on the debt.

Obama's reckless fiscal management as president helped trigger the Tea Party movement that fueled the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in 2010. The new GOP-led House embraced Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to overhaul Medicare and put the nation's long-term debt on a sustainable trajectory. In picking Ryan as his running mate, many conservatives hoped it was a signal that Romney wanted to campaign on a bold reformist agenda. But his politically successful debate performance should disabuse everyone of that notion.

Romney portrayed himself as a guardian of Medicare and Social Security. He was indignant that Obama had cut $716 billion from Medicare for his Obamacare program. Whenever Obama charged that his opponent wanted to cut popular programs, Romney backed off -- saying, for instance, he wouldn't want to cut funding for education and that he would find a way to restore more prescription drug funding for seniors when he repeals Obamacare.

The CBO projects that two-thirds of the cumulative $44 trillion 10-year U.S. budget will be eaten up by spending on Social Security, Medicare, defense and interest payments. Add in education funding, veterans' benefits, the Medicare dollars that Romney has vowed to restore and any other popular programs that Romney has denied wanting to cut, and the percentage of the budget that will be off-limits for Romney is even higher. At the same time, he has pledged not to increase taxes.

It's true that, in contrast to Obama, Romney has embraced the idea of transitioning Medicare into a system where seniors could choose among competing insurance plans, which has the potential to contain the growth of the program over time. But his reforms don't kick in for at least 10 years. Even then, his promise to preserve traditional Medicare as an option will undermine this goal.

Obama's attacks on Romney's lack of specifics have some validity. But those attacks are disingenuous, considering he's spent his first term punting on the debt issue. And if Romney did offer more specifics, Obama would use them to charge that Republicans want to crush seniors and the poor, while touting his own magic plan to preserve the generous welfare state merely by taxing the very rich.

Philip Klein (pklein@washingtonexaminer.com) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @philipaklein.

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Philip Klein

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The Washington Examiner