If It's Broke, Don't Fix It

Robert J Samuelson explains presidential politics:

The media pretend that Bush and Kerry are debating big issues, when they aren’t. To be sure, some big issues are automatically engaged: Iraq and terrorism, for example. But here differences mainly involve style and competence, not substance. (See, for example, Kerry’s July 4 op-ed in The Post. It has few big disagreements with Bush.) Beyond security, Bush and Kerry quietly agree not to debate some of the big issues facing the country. To wit: (a) baby boomers’ retirement costs; (b) immigration; and (c) China. You won’t hear much about these, because candor would offend millions of voters.

Oh, Kerry might suggest that Bush threatens Social Security and Medicare benefits (a standard Democratic tactic); and Bush may try to win votes for enacting a Medicare drug benefit (a program that makes the long-term budget outlook worse). But both will avoid the real problem: The costs of Social Security and Medicare will ultimately swamp the budget. Retirees and near-retirees over 50 don’t want to hear that. Nor do they want to hear that benefit cuts — higher eligibility ages, smaller payments — are the surest way to relieve those pressures.

Immigration is a similar political swamp. The present system is broken. It keeps out people we ought to admit (foreign scholars and students) and admits people we ought to keep out (illegals). But remedies are contentious: tough sanctions against employers for hiring illegals, and national identity cards. Moreover, any critical mention of immigration might upset Latino voters. As for China, its economic expansion is already curbing America’s global power and influence. But every president since Jimmy Carter has encouraged China’s economic liberalization. What’s there to say?

It’s easier to say nothing, and the media condone the silence.

And you call me cynical?

Seriously — what I’d like to know is, is there a solution to the problem. Simply wishing for a more serious and honest press corps, or for more serious and responsible candidates is no solution at all. Wishing is no fix.

A smarter electorate? That would require big changes in the education system — a political problem with no easy solution. And if there’s no easy solution, how will our unserious press and politicians deal with it? Which brings us back to Square One.

Term limits? The Supreme Court ruled nearly a decade ago that statutory term limits are unconstitutional, so that’s out. And passing an amendment, again, would require a different sort of press corps and suicide-minded politicians. Which, again, brings us back to Square One.

New rules for the press? Ha! Now you’re talking about gutting the First Amendment — and that, my friend, is a cure worse than the disease. Which, one mo’ time, brings us back to Square One.

OK, go on and call me cynical.

But what’s your solution, smart guy?