Republican presidential candidates kick off the critical fall campaign season tonight when they take the stage at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. This would be a good occasion to abandon platitudes and begin hashing out concrete ideas for addressing the nation’s most pressing long-term issue — unsustainable spending on entitlement programs.
Any serious plan to get our nation’s fiscal house in order — something that all GOP contenders have promised to do — would have to involve fundamental yet politically controversial reforms of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Over the next decade, those three programs alone will cost taxpayers $21.4 trillion under the Congressional Budget Office’s rosiest scenario. Though commentators often focus on daunting fiscal problems as occurring decades from now, the actual difficulties will hit much sooner, when bond markets conclude that the U.S. has no real plan to clean up its fiscal mess.
Within 10 years, the big three entitlements are projected to account for more than half of federal spending, at which point they will already be squeezing the government’s ability to deliver other needed services. For example, the entitlement crisis represents a threat to national security. We’ve already seen defense cuts in the deal Congress struck to hike the debt limit, and as entitlement programs continue to expand, there will be increasing pressure to slash military spending well below historic levels.
With Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., declining to seek the presidency, there’s an opening for a Republican candidate who is willing to lay out serious solutions to reform the broken entitlement system. Thus far, the candidates have adopted the prevailing wisdom of the political class, which is that GOP emphasis on specific entitlement reforms will give President Barack Obama a bludgeon with which to hammer Republicans. Yet a failure to confront the nation’s long-term fiscal situation is hurting the economy now by creating a cloud of uncertainty for businesses. Even if Obama won’t take the risk of tackling entitlements, the Republicans must for the greater good.
There’s never an easy time to reduce spending on popular programs, which is why Washington has consistently avoided it. But further delay in dealing with the problem won’t make it go away — it will only mean that any eventual fix will be far more disruptive to people’s lives. A presidential debate may not be the ideal format for candidates to roll out detailed proposals, but it does present an important opportunity for candidates to contrast their overall approaches to entitlement reform.