By Kirsten Adshead | Wisconsin Reporter
Nicholson: “You want answers?”
Cruise: “I think I’m entitled!”
Nicholson: “You want ANSWERS?”
Cruise: “I want the TRUTH!”
Nicholson: “You can’t handle the truth!”
Nicholson, alas, could well have been speaking to the American public.
The Washington Post editorial board this week took Mitt Romney to task for not explaining how he’d balance the federal budget while cutting tax rates 20 percent.
“Mr. Romney’s version of leadership may be to avoid specifics; we think a more courageous leader would trust voters with a menu that includes both dessert (rate cuts) and spinach (limited deductions),” the editorial board wrote in the piece. “Bold leadership would be to spell out a plausible, though not set in stone, pathway to a broader tax base; it would be to let voters know what they’re buying, rather than ask them to sign onto a details-to-follow tax plan.”
Similarly, critics blasted President Barack Obama for, among other things, understating the cost of his health care reforms and being less than forthright about how he would balance the federal budget.
“The president’s use of the term ‘balanced’ is too limited and, in some ways, inappropriate,” David M. Walker wrote for The Hill last February. “His budget proposal does not come close to balancing the budget, which is what most Americans think of when you use the term ‘balanced’ in connection with budget issues. To restore fiscal sanity we must address both our current and structural economic and deficit challenges in a transformational, integrated and politically feasible manner.”
In choosing Romney and Obama, however, critics have targeted the wrong people for their ire.
There’s a definite lack of truth in American politics.
Candidates, however, are merely the messenger.
Who, then, is to blame?
America, look in the mirror.
Right or wrong, politicians will never tell voters the hard truth as long as voters don’t want to hear it.
And voters, as this year’s Marquette Law School polling series shows, really don’t want to hear the truth.
- According to the Sept. 13-16 poll of 705 registered voters, 62 percent prefer keeping Medicare as it is, while in a separate question, a majority of respondents (52 percent) believe major changes are needed.
- In the Aug. 16-19 poll, 83 percent of 706 respondents said federal deficit reduction was extremely or very important. But majorities were unwilling to cut Medicare, allow tax increases on all income brackets or eliminate most tax deductions to reduce the deficit. Only one possibility, cutting defense spending, got the approval of the majority, 54 percent.
- In the early August poll of 1,400 Wisconsinites, 50 percent preferred “lower taxes, fewer services,” versus 43 percent who want “higher taxes, more services.” Yet again, most (55 percent) were unwilling to cut health-care spending, the federal government’s largest expense.
The margin of error for the Aug. 2-5 poll was 2.7 percent. For the later polls, the error margin was 3.8 percent.
“I think the simple answer is we want something for nothing,” said Charles Franklin, the University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist who oversees the Marquette polling series.
Marquette, of course, only polls Wisconsinites, but it’s hard to believe that the rest of America is less inclined to get what it wants for free.
People learn that actions have consequences almost from birth, said Carl Pickhardt, an Austin, Texas-based psychologist who writes the “Surviving (your child’s) Adolescence” blog for Psychology Today.
“A young child who has put their finger in the flame will probably not do it again,” he said.
But Pickhardt noted that teaching and learning about consequences is an ongoing process.
“A lot of parenting has to do with teaching this thing called responsibility, where responsibility is learned by linking choice and consequence — No. 1 and then No. 2 — owning the consequence of your choice,” he said.
Presidential candidates may be doing a poor job of “parenting” American voters.
But American voters aren’t toddlers sticking their fingers in the flame.
They are, theoretically, the protectors of democracy who, raised believing in a government “of the people, by the people and for the people,” should serve as the true leaders of the free world.
American voters, nonetheless, historically have been unkind to political candidates who’ve tried for honesty.
“Let’s tell the truth. It must be done, it must be done,” Walter Mondale famously said while accepting the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1984. “Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.”
Ronald Reagan that year won 49 states, the sole exception being Mondale’s home state of Minnesota.
Four years later, accepting the GOP’s nomination, then-Vice President George Bush famously pledged, “Read my lips. No new taxes.”
He may have meant that. But in 1990, Bush reached a compromise with the Democrat-led Congress on a budget deal that included tax hikes.
That compromise, Franklin said Wednesday, put the United States on a path toward balancing the federal budget.
But in 1992, political opponents painted Bush as untrustworthy, and his first term as president became his last.
“I think you could find this phenomenon (of voters wanting it both ways) going back a long way in polling,” Franklin said. “I think the current state of the deficit makes it more compelling — more riveting, if you will.”
And with the national debt running at $16 trillion, it’s time, America, to face the hard truth:
If you want something, you’re going to have to pay for it.
Feel free to take a moment. Take a breath. Take it in.
You want lower taxes? The price is fewer services, less money for health care, education and other things you really, really like.
You want to keep services? Expanded unemployment benefits when the economy tanks? Tax subsidies for agriculture and other industries? A fully funded Social Security program that will last well into the next century? Medicare?
That’ll literally cost you. The Internal Revenue Service happily collects.
The solution, some combination of taxes and services, isn’t one-size-fits-all, as the New York Times noted in its recent analysis of Kansas and Maryland.
“When it comes to paying taxes, I think most people are willing to pay for services they receive from the government, like good roads, good schools,” said Luke Hilgemann, Wisconsin state director for the Americans for Prosperity nonprofit, which advocates free-market policies. ”But they’re paying for enormous amounts of debts and spending on programs that haven’t achieved any real success in the private sector.”
Presidential candidates of all political stripes aren’t exactly inclined to say, in full, what they’d fund and how they’d get the money.
But, ultimately, responsible citizens decide what services they want — and then they commit to paying the bill.
That’s the truth, Americans, whether or not you can handle it.
Contact Kirsten Adshead at email@example.com