In Canada, the Conservative party has had a majority government since May 2011, yet it never talks about dismantling the nation’s social safety net. Both the opposition parties, the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Liberals, have led governments in our federation—in the case of the NDP at the provincial level, and Liberals at both levels—that have produced balanced budgets and worked to reduce the public debt. The one constant between parties of the Left and the Right in Canada since the mid-1990s has been the recognition given to three important tenets usually associated with fiscal conservatism: the means to keep social programs viable and sustainable, or cuts must follow; the need to balance yearly budgets; and the obligation to address the debt burden as part of GDP.
With the political convention season ending in the United States, the Democrats and the Republicans are also presenting policies and making promises on how to deal with existing social programs, yearly government deficits and the increasing debt. Unlike Canada, the thorny issue of eliminating taxes or bringing in new taxes, and the maintenance of existing social programs in order to deal with yearly deficits and long-term debt have been the wedge issues between Democrats and Republicans since the Reagan days, and are at the center of the 2012 presidential debate. Republicans want to balance budgets by reducing the size of government through lower taxes and cutting spending. Democrats, taking a page from Bill Clinton’s playbook, want to balance budgets with a mixture of cuts and raising revenue. Of the two, it is fair to say the Democrats resemble most of the Canadian approach.
The reality today is that the issues of social programs, deficits and debt must be addressed outside the prism of ideological purity and rigidity. Undoubtedly, the social safety net in both countries, with its universal character which emerged in the post-depression years often out of necessity, and in the post-World War II period because of prosperity, will be hard to dislodge. In the United States, “Don’t touch my Medicare or my social security” is a more powerful force than “Lower taxes on the rich, cut spending, and reduce the size of government.” I am certain Canadians would have similar reflexes .
Does this mean that we are condemned to the status quo? Must we be resigned to the fact that deficit and debt will eventually drive us over the cliff, and then it will be too late? The debate should not be relegated to the Left-Right continuum of politics. Nor should it be limited to one about the role of government, whether it should be active or limited. It should be about the will to act, the need to rise above partisan concerns, and the desire to compromise. In this regard, failure to endorse the Bowles-Simpson Commission Report on the Debt in the U.S. was likely a missed opportunity.
For those who find U.S. elections too long and sometimes endless, brace yourself as the next cycle begins tomorrow morning. The near unanimity of prognosticators are predicting a Republican wave, and this will only raise the ante as to whether President Obama will be a one-term President. History leads us to be cautious about predicting presidential elections based on midterm elections.
Since WW II, there have been three blowout results (Harry S. Truman in 1946, Ronald Reagan in 1982 and Bill Clinton in 1994) and each of these Presidents were re-elected two years later. With less than 50 percent of the electorate expected to vote and with the average midterm loss around 28 seats in the House and four in the Senate, it is almost certain that the Democrats will suffer some serious losses. But this is mainly an election about local issues, the current state of the economy and how this impacts on the mood of the country. A presidential election is a much different dynamic.
Elections do often carry some surprises. Races which were leaning heavily Republican are now much closer and some are trending Democratic as is the case in California, Delaware and Connecticut. The weekend rally under the aegis of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert using satire and the theme of sanity indicates that enthusiasm is not just in the Glen Beck camp. President Clinton in a Montreal speech last Friday predicted that the Democrats will cause some surprises. However, while he may be on to something, it is fair to say that if the House flips to John Boehner and the Republicans this Tuesday, the presidential stakes in the Republican Party will begin in earnest.