Seeking Truth About Deficits


The story of the presidential campaign so far has been one in which a succession of "outsiders" have challenged a club of "insiders" who are misgoverning the country. First, in the Republican primaries, came Patrick Buchanan. Then, in the Democratic primaries, came former Paul Tsongas and Jerry Brown. And then, of course, came the billionaire Ross Perot.

The latest intervention in the campaign, however, comes from quite a different quarter. It comes from six senators who represent as well as any group could the very core of the "inside" that everyone is running against. Three -- John Danforth, R-Mo., Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Hank Brown, R-Colo. -- are Republicans, and three -- Sam Nunn, D-Ga., Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Bob Graham, D-Fla. -- are Democrats. The insiders -- denounced all year by every office-seeker and every angry voter -- have finally raised their tattered flag over the political battlefield of 1992.

The six have turned their attention to the budget deficit, and what they propose makes more sense than anything yet heard from the outsiders.

The senators approach the subject with a particular knowledge not widely shared in the country. It is knowledge gained in the repeated, tangled, unsuccessful efforts to close the budget deficits -- efforts that have included attempts to bind their own hands with legislation and has even produced a movement for a constitutional amendment to balance the budget.

What they have learned is that the feat is impossible unless the government does one -- and probably both -- of two things: raise taxes or cut entitlement programs, such as Medicare and Social Security. These are truths, however, that politicians have been wise to hide in the political climate of these times. In the words of Sen. Nunn, "Politicians know that the way to get elected is to promise tax cuts, and service increases, and also to make general statements about how bad the deficit is." What they also have known, but not said, was that action based on these promises, while assuring re-election, disabled government.

Now the six are cautiously letting the secret out of the bag. The problem, plainly, is not only the false promises of candidates but also the public's keen appetite for the deception. Politicians who were out of step "paid the price," as Ted Koppel, on whose program "Nightline" the six first appeared together, recently pointed out. Hence the public needs what Sen. Nunn called an "education" in the mathematics of making budgets.

The vehicle the senators have proposed for this education is three one-hour sessions on ABC, in which George Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot would be questioned on their proposals for reducing the deficit by retiring senators Warren Rudman, R-N.H., and Kent Conrad, D-N.D. They would aim to extract from the candidates what none has yet offered -- a plan for cutting the deficit that will not only win the election but cut the deficit.

All this is a far cry from the political story line that has dominated this election year -- the one in which an angry electorate calls politicians to account for getting out of touch with the people. Instead, the senators, while acknowledging that Congress and the president share the blame, have had the temerity to gently suggest that the public must bring itself to account. In 1992, it may be, the people have to get in touch with the politicians.

None of the six presented a profile in perfect courage. None called outright for new taxes. Rather, they called, in Levin's words, for putting "all of the items . . . on the table, including taxes." They dipped only a toe in the icy waters of austerity and sacrifice that they invite the public to dive into for the sake of future generations. Yet the very mention of raising taxes and cutting entitlements broke a taboo that has crippled government for more than a decade.

We admire ordinary people who, as they say, speak truth to power. Yet there are times, too, when power must speak truth to the people.

Now the presidential candidates will have to decide whether and how to respond. Mr. Bush has of course repeated his broken vow not to raise taxes. Mr. Clinton has been cloudy. Of particular interest, perhaps, will be the reaction of Mr. Perot, who has contradicted himself flatly on the tax issue. In an article in 1987, in the Washington Post, he stated, "We must cut spending and raise taxes." But this month he stated that as president he would not raise taxes. If he returns to his position of 1987, he would begin to deserve the reputation he has for forthrightness, and begin to put his candidacy on a solid foundation. If he repeats his recent, contrary pledge, he will be basing it, and perhaps the country's future, on a mirage.

Jonathan Schell is a columnist for Newsday.

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