Mr. Nocera is off today. Bobo, God help us, has decided we need his help and guidance. He’s come up with a “Guide for the Perplexed.” He gurgles that if you’re a moderate voter, it’s important to think through what really matters this year. He says how we go about entitlement spending should be a top priority. No, Bobo, you flaming asshole, howzabout we talk about the defense budget, raising the cap on Social Security, and ending Bush’s tax cuts? [crickets] What a schmuck. Mr. Cohen, in “Collision Course,” says there are dangers inherent in Mitt Romney’s proposed war against the “managed decline” of America. In “Principle Over Politics” Mr. Bruni says in a conservative state, Bob Kerrey makes the case for gay marriage. Here’s that poisonous toad Bobo:
Let’s say you’re generally a moderate voter. You look at the Romney-Ryan ticket and see that they are much more conservative than you. They don’t believe in tax increases ever. You think tax increases have to be a part of a budget deal. They want to slash social spending to the bone. You think that would be harsh on the vulnerable and bad for social cohesion.
You look at the Obama-Biden ticket. You like them personally. But you’re not sure what they want to achieve over the next four years. The country needs big changes, and they don’t seem to be offering many. Where’s the leadership?
In this disaffected frame of mind, you ask yourself: What really matters in this election? Well, the big issue is national decline. How can we ensure that the U.S. is as dynamic in the 21st century as it was in the 20th?
The biggest threat to national dynamism is spending money on the wrong things. If you go back and look at the federal budgets during the mid-20th century, you see that they spent money on the future — on programs like NASA, infrastructure projects, child welfare, research and technology. Today, we spend most of our money on the present — on tax loopholes and health care for people over 65.
A study by Jessica Perez and others at the group Third Way lays out the basic facts. In 1962, 14 cents of every federal dollar not going to interest payments were spent on entitlement programs. Today, 47 percent of every dollar is spent on entitlements. By 2030, 61 cents of every noninterest dollar will be spent on entitlements.
Entitlement spending is crowding out spending on investments in our children and on infrastructure. This spending is threatening national bankruptcy. It’s increasing so quickly that there is no tax increase imaginable that could conceivably cover it. And, these days, the real entitlement problem is Medicare.
So when you think about the election this way, the crucial question is: Which candidate can slow the explosion of entitlement spending so we can devote more resources toward our future?
Looking at the candidates through this prism, you see that President Obama deserves some credit for taking on entitlement spending. He had the courage to chop roughly $700 billion out of Medicare reimbursements. He had the courage to put some Medicare eligibility reforms on the table in his negotiations with Republicans. He created that (highly circumscribed) board of technocrats who might wring some efficiencies out of the system.
Still, you wouldn’t call Obama a passionate reformer. He’s trimmed on the edges of entitlements. He’s not done anything that might fundamentally alter their ruinous course.
When you look at Mitt Romney through this prism, you see surprising passion. By picking Paul Ryan as his running mate, Romney has put Medicare at the center of the national debate. Possibly for the first time, he has done something politically perilous. He has made it clear that restructuring Medicare will be a high priority.
This is impressive. If you believe entitlement reform is essential for national solvency, then Romney-Ryan is the only train leaving the station.
Moreover, when you look at the Medicare reform package Romney and Ryan have proposed, you find yourself a little surprised. You think of them of as free-market purists, but this proposal features heavy government activism, flexibility and rampant pragmatism.
The federal government would define a package of mandatory health benefits. Private insurers and an agency akin to the current public Medicare system would submit bids to provide coverage for those benefits. The government would give senior citizens a payment equal to the second lowest bid in each region to buy insurance.
This system would provide a basic health safety net. It would also unleash a process of discovery. If the current Medicare structure proves most efficient, then it would dominate the market. If private insurers proved more efficient, they would dominate. Either way, we would find the best way to control Medicare costs. Either way, the burden for paying for basic health care would fall on the government, not on older Americans. (Much of the Democratic criticism on this point is based on an earlier, obsolete version of the proposal.)
You’re still deeply uncomfortable with many other Romney-Ryan proposals. But first things first. The priority in this election is to get a leader who can get Medicare costs under control. Then we can argue about everything else. Right now, Romney’s more likely to do this.
All of which causes you to look over to the Democrats and wonder: Why don’t they have an alternative? Silently, a voice in your head is pleading with them: Put up or shut up.
If Democrats can’t come up with an alternative on this most crucial issue, how can they promise to lead a dynamic growing nation?
Asks the man in the $4 million house with vast spaces for entertaining… At least he’s getting flayed in the comments again. Here’s Mr. Cohen:
I may have missed it but I’ve not seen a war that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan don’t want to fight. Romney vows never to negotiate with the Taliban and declares, “We go anywhere they are and we kill them.” He beats the war drums on Iran. He has a bizarre itch to open a new era of confrontation with Russia.
When he sniffs the possibility of war Romney drops his frequent imitation of the Beatles’ Nowhere Man (“Doesn’t have a point of view, knows not where he’s going to”). He becomes a Real Man fired up.
After more than a decade of inconclusive U.S. wars, this is not reassuring.
In a similar vein, Ryan, whose experience outside Washington is limited, believes that in Afghanistan, “Now is the time to lock in the success that is within reach.” Said “success” is as hard to identify as the tax loopholes Ryan insists he wants to close.
The big question, of course, is how all this squares with the concerns over the U.S. debt that Romney has placed at the center of the campaign by picking Ryan. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have already cost over $1.3 trillion. Several estimates, including one last year from Brown University, suggest the final bill will be $3.7 trillion or higher.
New or rebooted wars are scarcely the fiscal medicine the United States needs.
Ryan seemed to grasp this last year when he declared in a speech in Washington: “If there’s one thing I could say with complete confidence about American foreign policy, it is this: Our fiscal policy and our foreign policy are on a collision course; and if we fail to put our budget on a sustainable path, then we are choosing decline as a world power.”
The Wisconsin congressman was right about that.
He continued: “In the coming years, our debt is projected to grow to more than three times the size of our entire economy. This trajectory is catastrophic. By the end of the decade, we will be spending 20 percent of our tax revenue simply paying interest on the debt.”
Yet Romney and Ryan are up for any costly fight. One reason, of course, is that they face a president who, with a bold decision, eliminated America’s mortal enemy, Osama bin Laden, and whose cool review of “kill lists” selecting the next targets of drone attacks hardly suggests a lack of decider’s testosterone. Upping the military ante against this incumbent is not easy. But, as Ryan’s introduction before the U.S.S. Wisconsin suggests, it is something Romney feels he must do in pursuit of his new American Century.
Here we come to the heart of the matter: the desperate Republican quest to portray Obama as a quasi-European intent on the very European business of managed decline rather than renewed American glory.
No fiscal detail — a trillion here, a trillion there — can stand in the way of what Romney has called his “one overwhelming conviction and passion” — that the 21st century be as American as the 20th. Battlefield triumph seems to be part of the Romney-Ryan recipe for this.
Romney has zeroed in on a phrase in a campaign white paper written last fall by the historian Eliot Cohen, who argued that the Obama administration views U.S. decline as a “condition that can and should be managed for the global good rather than reversed.”
Aha! Romney declares: “I do not view America as just one more point on the strategic map, one more power to be balanced. I believe our country is the greatest force for good the world has ever known.”
Ryan, likewise, has said that some — read the Obama administration — have decided “that the choice we face is over how, not whether, to manage our nation’s decline.” But these “calls to surrender” must be rejected; the United States is “a nation whose best days still lie ahead of us, if we make the necessary choices today.”
I believe in the enduring centrality of American power; I don’t believe the nation’s immense capacity for renewal is exhausted. But more war is not the “necessary” choice for the United States today if fiscal and foreign policy are to be taken off their “collision course.” The 2014 timetable for ending the combat mission in Afghanistan is right; war with Iran is avoidable; the lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan, wars without victories, must be learned. And even all the right choices for the United States will not alter the rise of India and China or make the 21st century America’s as the 20th was.
Obama, as Joseph Lelyveld wrote in a recent New York Review of Books essay, has two major foreign policy achievements: “Getting American forces out of Iraq and compressing his predecessor’s expansive, grandiose-sounding ‘Global War on Terror’ into a narrowly focused, unremitting campaign against the remnants of the Qaeda network, relying largely on high-tech intelligence gathering and pilotless drones.”
These are sober achievements for sobering times. Economic turnaround is Job 1 for the next president. It will not be fostered by delusion, nostalgia or military overreach.
Now here’s Mr. Bruni, who’s in Omaha:
It makes no strategic sense for Bob Kerrey to bring up his support for gay marriage on the campaign trail in Nebraska, where he’s the Democratic nominee for an open Senate seat. Republicans far outnumber Democrats here; the state’s voters are socially conservative; his opponents are already smearing him as some effete import from the bohemian wilds of Lower Manhattan; and he trails the Republican nominee in the polls.
He brings up gay marriage anyway. Not every day, but on many of them. Not in response to voters’ questions, but at the prodding of his own conscience.
I got the feeling that his advisers would like him to stop — and that he knows he’d probably be wise to.
But here’s the thing: he’s 68. This race to reclaim the Senate seat that he held from 1989 to 2001, after which he retired from politics and relocated to New York, could be his last. And if he’s going to go down, he told me, he wants to go down fighting for what’s right and for what he truly believes. That means making a pitch for gay marriage.
“What I usually say is, ‘Let me talk to you about the issue of homosexuality,’ ” Kerrey said over a drink here Saturday night. And then he indeed talks to voters about it, telling them that people are born the way they are and deserve a full complement of civil rights, including the right to marry. It’s that simple.
“People who are opposed to it are going to have to be explaining to their grandkids: why, why, why was that the rationale?” he said. “We’re going to be embarrassed in 25 years.”
A life in politics often means the death of candor, twisting candidates into disingenuous knots. Barack Obama was for gay marriage as an Illinois state senator in the 1990s, when his audience was one liberal district, before he was against it over the next decade, when his aspirations were national. As Mitt Romney’s term in the Massachusetts governor’s office progressed, his positions on social issues regressed, and he entered the 2008 Republican primaries as a political animal with a whole new set of stripes.
Kerrey has been consistent, starting with his vote in 1996 against the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as the union of a man and a woman. It was signed into law by Bill Clinton.
All 53 Republicans in the Senate voted for it. So did 32 Democrats, including Joe Biden. Most of the 14 Democrats who opposed D.O.M.A. were from states — California, Massachusetts — that were unlikely to punish them for it. Kerrey stood out.
“I know that Bob Kerrey looked at this issue as a right-or-wrong question,” said Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who also voted against D.O.M.A. “I remember talking with him about it at the time. With Bob, you just get an unvarnished judgment.”
He’s no across-the-board liberal. In fact, his centrist reputation had many Democrats upset about his decision to run this year. They wanted a bolder progressive.
He didn’t come to his position on gay marriage because of a close relative or Vietnam War buddy. But over the years, he developed friendships with gay people.
Had he sought re-election to the Senate in 2000, he might well have been hurt by his D.O.M.A. vote and by his opposition to a 2000 ballot measure in Nebraska that called for amending the state constitution to ban same-sex civil unions as well as marriages.
Ben Nelson, the Nebraska Democrat who ran for the Senate seat that Kerrey was giving up, supported the ban. Nebraskans approved it by a margin of more than 2-to-1. Nelson won, and is now retiring after two terms.
Kerrey’s bid to return to the Senate is driven largely, he said, by concerns over the country’s fiscal health and the breakdown of bipartisanship. He is already facing attack ads that preposterously cast him as a carpetbagger, though he was reared and educated in Nebraska, returned here after winning a Medal of Honor in Vietnam, and governed the state from 1983 to 1987. A bridge in Omaha is named for him.
Gay marriage isn’t his primary issue. I just happened to hear that he was mentioning it frequently and gave him a call, during which he said that any commitment to social justice compelled advocacy of gay rights. He told me that he often asks voters: “Do you think anyone in his right mind would choose to be gay in Nebraska?”
After he agreed to continue our conversation in person, an aide e-mailed to say that an interview couldn’t be arranged. Kerrey overruled the aide.
He knows that he has politically risky positions, including his longtime support of abortion rights, but said, “I think I can be the kind of senator who would make Nebraskans proud.”
If they value principle and valor, there’s no doubt.