A THIRD VOICE
EVENTUALLY the “circular firing squad” that is the Republican primary will be over and the last man standing will be the party’s nominee for president. If that candidate is Rick Santorum, I think there is a good chance a Third Party will try to fill the space between the really “severely conservative” Santorum (or even Mitt Romney) and the left-of-center Barack Obama.
It would be fitting. After all, this is the 20th anniversary of Ross Perot’s independent candidacy. Perot won close to 20 percent of the vote, and his success was instrumental in making deficit reduction one of Bill Clinton’s top priorities. An independent candidate in 2012 who was a little more, shall we say, “normal” than Perot could have an equally big impact on the winner.
I still don’t know if I’d support an independent. Like others, I worry about electing the wrong person by accident. (See: Ralph Nader and George W. Bush.) But I know what I’d pay good money to see: an intelligent independent candidate just taking part in the presidential debates, because it would make both Obama and his Republican opponent better.
One independent I’d like to see play that role is David Walker. Walker was the country’s chief auditor, serving from 1998 to 2008 as the US comptroller general. He is currently the chief executive of the Comeback America Initiative (www.tcaii.org), a nonpartisan group dedicated to getting America’s fiscal house in order. Walker — who came in second to Hillary Clinton in a reader poll that Politico conducted last October for favourite Third Party candidate — told me that he has no desire to run but that he’s been speaking across the country, trying to do what Perot did. “He did three things,” says Walker. “He woke up the American people to the truth about our fiscal situation in clear, concise and compelling terms.
He made the presidential debates much more substantive, and he helped to set the next president’s agenda, and, as a result, we made great progress in reducing the deficit from 1993 to 2000. Now we have lost all of that and more.” Walker’s view is simple: “We are not Greece, where the government grew too big, promised too much and waited too long to restructure, but we’re making many of the same mistakes.” Because of the size of the U.S. economy and the dollar’s role as a global reserve currency, we “have some time” to get our house in order, “but we are not immune from the laws of prudent finance.” Alas, both of our major parties behave as though we are. The Democrats, argues Walker, “are still in denial about the need to renegotiate our social insurance contract.” Walker praises Obama for focusing on the right metric — our overall debt-to-G.D.P. ratio — and in offering short-term ideas to enhance economic growth and address unemployment, like investments in infrastructure. But these ideas, he says, have to be “coupled with a credible and enforceable plan to address the structural deficits that threaten our nation’s future position in the world and our standard of living at home” — and there Obama continues to fall short. “He is not talking about the fundamental reforms in Medicare and Medicaid that we need, and he is not ready to touch Social Security,” says Walker, referring to Obama’s latest budget.
Also, Obama “talks about tax reform, but it is not comprehensive, and he is using creative accounting to get to his budget numbers. His proposals don’t come close to stabilizing our debt-to-G.D.P. ratio at the level we need.” Walker says the president’s budget cuts discretionary spending programs by 1 percent over 10 years, but mandatory spending programs — like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and interest on debt — will be left to grow by more than 96 percent over the same decade.
As a result, in the year 2022, more than 77 percent of total government outlays will be on auto-pilot, “which is irresponsible and unsustainable.” There will be little left for defense or infrastructure, education and research that build our future. As for Republicans, says Walker, “they don’t have a plan to restore fiscal sanity either. They’re in denial that we can solve our structural deficit problems with either our current level of taxation — between 15 and 16 percent of G.D.P. — or even with our historical average, about 18 percent of G.D.P. We need more revenue. Our deficit problem is primarily a spending problem, but it is not only a spending problem.” We need $1 in new revenue for every $3 in spending cuts, excluding interest, says Walker — and that should be accomplished through tax reform that makes our system “simpler, fairer and more competitive,” while generating more revenue.
“The Republicans are simply in denial about this.” The American people are “starved for three things,” concludes Walker: “truth, leadership and solutions.” Unfortunately, the two parties are just offering “laggardship — waiting for something to hit the fan” so they can again just react “without adequate due diligence.” After months of nutty, gravityfree Republican primary debates, how great would it be to have presidential debates in which a smart independent like Walker was in the middle to challenge both sides and offer sensible solutions?