The presidential campaign feels like it has been going on for three years and will not produce a winner till nearly 10 months from now. But eventually, it will end. When it does, the victor will finally take a look at the challenges ahead and recall the man in Abraham Lincoln's story who was tarred and feathered: If it weren't such an honor, he said, he could do without it.
That's because life after Election Day is short on giddy moments of upbeat anthems, cheering crowds and confetti showers. It is long, though, on the toil of budget-making. And in the next administration, that will be not only an arduous task but a thankless one.
The federal budget suffers from only two problems. The first is that expenditures are expected to rise. The second is that revenues are scheduled to fall. Consequently, the deficit, a not-insignificant $163 billion last year, is set to grow by leaps and bounds for the foreseeable future. So is the size of government, which is on track to break all previous records for bloat.
Unless, of course, our leaders acknowledge the looming crisis and take the steps needed to avert it. But most of the presidential candidates would rather kiss Dick Cheney on the lips than admit the need for Americans to accept painful sacrifices.
Listening to the Democratic contenders, for example, is like listening to a 4-year-old tell Santa what she wants for Christmas - an array of cherished desires, and no sense that someone has to pay for them. Universal health insurance! Affordable college! Grants for child care! Money for schools! Every doll ever made by American Girl!
According to the nonpartisan Web site PolitiFact, which assesses the accuracy of what candidates say, all the programs envisioned by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton would add about $174 billion a year in outlays. And that was before she unveiled a $70 billion fiscal stimulus plan Friday. Sen. Barack Obama, according to a November analysis in the McClatchy newspapers, has promised "at least $181 billion in new annual spending on middle-class tax cuts, health care and retirement and energy plans."
How would they pay for it all? Their prime source is repealing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest households. What they don't acknowledge is that those tax cuts are already scheduled to expire in 2010, helping to eliminate the deficit. But if the money is going to be used to close the fiscal shortfall, it can't be used to pay for new programs.
Mrs. Clinton says she intends not only to shower us with blessings but balance the budget. Can that be done? Of course - if she is prepared to raise taxes far more than she has let on.
If Democrats love spending money, Republicans love cutting taxes. Not so long ago, they assured us that lower taxes would inevitably force lower spending. In his time in office, though, President Bush has refuted that claim.
Since 2001, federal revenues have declined by 7 percent as a share of gross domestic product, while federal outlays have grown by 9 percent as a share of GDP. When you increase spending without increasing revenue, you aren't cutting taxes but raising them - for future taxpayers.
Things are not about to improve on the spending side, even if the GOP contenders were far more frugal than the incumbent. In fact, the retirement of the Baby Boomers, coupled with rising health care costs and other obligations, promises to make Mr. Bush look like Silas Marner.
Federal spending now amounts to less than 20 percent of our income. The Congressional Budget Office says that given current trends, it could rise to a whopping 56 percent of our income by 2050 - more, on an annual basis, than we spent to win World War II.
But among the Republicans, only Fred Thompson has been willing to risk the wrath of the elderly by calling for a cut in the growth of Social Security benefits. The supposedly fearless Sen. John McCain targets pork-barrel goodies, which are only a small part of the problem. Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee strenuously dodge the entitlement issue. No one is publishing lists of programs to be cancelled and departments to be razed.
This suggests a dismal lack of ambition. Less than a decade ago, the federal budget was not just balanced but piling up surpluses. Everyone agrees it was a great achievement. And everyone running for president seems to agree it should never happen again.
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.