SYNOPSIS: G-dub will face some hard choices once he's -- maybe -- elected.
The big lesson of this year's campaign — a lesson that we can be sure politicians will take to heart — is that a candidate can get away with saying things that are demonstrably untrue, as long as the untruths involve big numbers.
George W. Bush has repeatedly declared, among other things, that he intends to spend about a trillion dollars on new programs; his budget actually earmarks less than half that much. But his repetition of this claim has not led the public to question his credibility.
Mr. Bush has also promised to use a trillion dollars of Social Security money for two conflicting purposes: putting it into private accounts for young workers, while still using it to pay benefits to older workers. And his favorite argument for privatization involves similar double dipping. When he compares the rate of return people can get on their money with the implied rate of return on Social Security contributions, he seems to have misunderstood why Social Security offers lower returns: it has to set young workers' contributions aside, or it will run out of money before today's middle-aged workers have retired.
But it's not a misunderstanding. Since warnings about his accounting have come from many places, including the American Academy of Actuaries, Mr. Bush's continuing use of this comparison is not a mistake — it's a ploy. Still, this exercise in double counting has caused remarkably few problems for a campaign that promises to bring "honor and integrity" back to the White House.
How has he gotten away with it? One answer is that voters can't relate to big numbers. But it's also true that the media haven't helped them make sense of these numbers.
Partly this is a matter of marketing — insider gossip makes better TV than budget arithmetic. But there has also been a political aspect: the mainstream media are fanatically determined to seem evenhanded. One of the great jokes of American politics is the insistence by conservatives that the media have a liberal bias. The truth is that reporters have failed to call Mr. Bush to account on even the most outrageous misstatements, presumably for fear that they might be accused of partisanship. If a presidential candidate were to declare that the earth is flat, you would be sure to see a news analysis under the headline "Shape of the Planet: Both Sides Have a Point." After all, the earth isn't perfectly spherical.
What we don't know, however, is how the story ends. If Mr. Bush wins, he will have to produce an actual budget, not to mention an actual Social Security plan. At that point rhetorical flourishes won't be enough. So what would he really do?
Many analysts seem to hope — hope! — that Mr. Bush is actually playing bait-and-switch. That is, they hope that if he wins the election he will actually unveil a program very different from anything he has suggested in the campaign. Conservatives, in particular, not so secretly believe that the real program will involve drastic cuts in social spending to make room for reductions in income and estate taxes, and large cuts in Social Security benefits to offset the diversion of taxes into private accounts.
But the needed spending cuts would make a mockery of any claim to compassionate conservatism. And we have a pretty good idea what a realistic plan for partial Social Security privatization would look like. It would involve some combination of substantially raising the retirement age, sharply reducing cost-of-living adjustments and heavily taxing those private accounts when they are cashed in. ("It's your money" — but under the plan proposed by one of Mr. Bush's advisers, you get to keep only 25 percent of any gains you make.)
Would Mr. Bush dare to present such a tough-minded plan, after promising a free lunch in his campaign? Think of the reaction to the original Clinton health plan, and ask whether Mr. Bush would be prepared to face a similar firestorm.
My guess is that if elected, Mr. Bush will try to govern as he has campaigned. The accounts will simply be fudged until the financial markets, alarmed by America's rapidly deteriorating finances, deliver a message that cannot be ignored.
But maybe I've underestimated Mr. Bush's willingness to cast aside his campaign promises. Sad to say, if he wins we must indeed hope that he actually was playing bait-and- switch.
Originally published in The New York Times, 11.1.00