Presidential debates: why $600 billion 'fiscal cliff' was barely mentioned (+video)
Neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney has said how he would deal with mandated spending cuts and a tax hike set to take hold in 2013. That's because any plan to avoid the 'fiscal cliff' is likely to be unpopular with voters.
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“At least they are talking about the debt,” says Mr. Goldwein, “and that’s an improvement over any other presidential campaign since the '90s.”Skip to next paragraph
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Romney has said he would like Congress to punt all of the fiscal cliff issues into 2013, so that his administration would have responsibility for handling them. Then, he would pair significant spending cuts and entitlement reforms with an overhaul of the federal tax code to bring down rates and curb deductions. That is a tax two-step that Democrats and Republicans believe can spur economic growth, although the parties differ on the extent of its economic impact.
Obama, for his part, has said he wants to deal with the fiscal cliff as part of a larger debt- and deficit-reduction deal of about $4 trillion. He also vows to veto any bill that extends the Bush-era tax cuts for household incomes over $250,000 and wants a roughly 3 to 1 ratio of spending cuts and entitlement reforms to tax increases to reach the $4 trillion target.
Both candidates in Monday's debate charged that the other has an inadequate plan for dealing with debt and deficits. Obama battered Romney with calls to specify what tax breaks he would cut to pay for his plan to reduce tax rates. Romney did not offer further details.
"There’s an inequity of specificity,” Goldwein says. "[Romney] tells us exactly how he’s going to cut taxes ... and then when we ask him how he’s going to pay for, he says, ‘I don’t know.’ "
On the other hand, the president's plan "just barely stabilizes the debt, and in the long run after 2022, the debt rises again,” he adds.
But the real turning point in the debates over the fiscal cliff and the nation’s economic horizon will not be how much specificity the candidates offer on the campaign trail but how much leadership the next president will offer on the issue.
A gridlocked Congress needs presidential-level force, as in President Bill Clinton’s budget deal with Republicans in 1997, to move the ball.
“One of the things that Bill Clinton did very well was he got to yes, he got to the deal, he owned it and he sold it” to the public, says Mr. Holtz-Eakin. “Whether deep in his heart he believed in it, I don’t know. But he sold it.”
The next president will need an informed public to help sell a potential "big" debt and deficit deal, Holtz-Eakin says. “Historically, deficits are always things people talked about but they didn’t change their votes, but now they do,” he adds. “If we are to believe the exit polls in 2010, if we believe what people are saying now, they will change their votes on the basis of spending and debt.”
Polling is sending mixed messages on whether the campaigns are giving voters what they need on the nation’s leading fiscal issues. About 6 in 10 voters say both campaigns “have a message and you know what they would do if elected,” according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released Monday morning.
But that stands in contrast to 74 percent of voters who say neither candidate has done enough to inform the public about his plan for the fiscal cliff, according to a poll released last week by Center Forward, a center-left group.
No matter what, however, “not talking about [the fiscal cliff] isn’t going to make it go away,” Goldwein says. “Regardless of how much or little we talk about it, it’s going to put us into a double-dip recession” if Congress and the White House fail to act.