When Ronald Reagan was president, then-Rep. Pat Schroeder, D-Colo. — acknowledging Reagan’s remarkable ability to escape without any of the voters’ blame for his administration’s mistakes and misdeeds ever sticking to him — dubbed him “the Teflon President.”
It was not too much of an exaggeration to say then that if Reagan had driven a convertible — with the top down — through a car wash, Jimmy Carter would have gotten wet.
Reagan’s 1980 campaign promises to cut everyone’s taxes by one-third, double the nation’s defense budget and simultaneously balance the federal budget always reminded me of the tabloids on sale at the supermarket checkout counters. You know, the ones that feature stories like, “Hitler Is Alive and Selling Commercial Real Estate in Dubai.” Their breakthrough medical story is a variation of “You Can Lose 11 Pounds Every Other Day on the Miracle Hot Fudge Sundae Diet.” It’s simple: Just eat four — or, even better, five — hot fudge sundaes a day, and your metabolism will magically over-accelerate and any excess weight will melt away.
Reagan’s internally contradictory three 1980 campaign promises were the political equivalent of the hot fudge sundae diet.
Here in a presidential campaign, some 28 years later, American voters are being offered by Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain bogus solutions — more political hot fudge sundae diets.
The world is holding its breath. Americans do not honestly know if their retirement accounts will disappear, when and if their homes (that is, if they can keep them) will stop sinking in value, whether a faltering economy will provide jobs for their children — or for them. The next president — either Obama or McCain — will face a budget deficit for next year alone of at least $800 billion. The national debt — having almost doubled on President Bush’s watch — will soon pass $11 trillion on the way to $12 trillion. We are not even mentioning the unsustainable costs of Medicare, the economic urgency of rebuilding the nation’s roads and bridges, the moral imperative of repairing the nation’s broken health-care coverage.
So given this emerging perfect storm of historic crises, what do we get from the men who would lead us out of these scary times? I’ll cut the taxes of 95 percent of Americans and provide health care to nearly everyone, or I’ll stop the scheduled expiration of Bush’s tax cuts, toss in several billion new tax cuts of my own and, in case you missed it, direct the U.S. Treasury to spend an additional $300 billion buying up those bad mortgages.
Because this is a family Web site, I’ll just call the intellectually dishonest agendas endorsed by both smart nominees — when ouchless, painless prosperity and patriotism are over — baloney, bunk, bull. It is discouraging, bordering on depressing, that neither of these men thinks highly enough of his fellow citizens to treat us like grown-ups, saying something like this: “We face rough seas. There will be no national health program. We cannot afford it. There will be no tax cuts. We cannot afford them. Taxes instead will go up. The ‘Me Generation’ is over. From now on, it will be the ‘We Generation.’ The party is over. Sacrifice will be real and universal. We — all of us — will make it, but only if all of us are committed to all of us getting through this together.”
The next president will desperately need the trust and the confidence of the people he tries to lead. He will have a finite supply of political capital. A presidential credibility gap — beginning even before the inauguration — will further deplete that public trust. Please, Sens. Obama and McCain, no more hot fudge sundae diets. Level with us!
Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.