With Attorney General William Barr’s summary of the Mueller report just hours from release on Sunday, the political world was about to be overturned. When the summary was released, the political world was, in fact, turned on its head.
The Attorney General’s summary had revealed that the President and his campaign did not knowingly conspire with Russia to gain electoral advantage. It also revealed an inconclusive outcome on matter of obstruction of justice. In a matter of the minutes it took to read the report, the nation’s political landscape had been transformed.
Election 2020 would no longer be waged on grounds of asking voters to cast out an “illegitimate” President. Instead, it would be fought over visions for the future and concrete policy ideas. Candidates would now need to win or hold office not on legal technicality, but on the power of their ideas and their capacity to lead.
While unwelcome to some, this new certainty is a positive development. The questions of what the President might have done to get elected and whether he had obstructed justice to mask his conduct are important from a rule of law perspective. A candidate’s vision, his or her policy ideas, and his or her capacity to lead are far more important for shaping the nation’s future in coming years and decades.
Truly fundamental matters need to be addressed over the medium-term. Policy action may need to start as soon as months after the 2020 election, but probably not later than after the 2028 election. Further, unlike in some past cases where delay can beneficial, as it allows time for ideas to be fleshed out and and valuable new information to emerge, inertia could impose an exceptionally high cost from a narrowing of the nation’s policy flexibility and increase in the impact on its people from a limited time-frame for adjustment.
Going forward, the nation faces a number of large-scale challenges, some of which are more apparent than others. Perhaps the most visible emerging challenge concerns the nation’s fiscal sustainability. That issue has implications for the nation’s consensus concerning the basic role of government. Further, the nature and magnitude of the nation’s long-term fiscal imbalances is widely understood.
The 2018 Old-Age and Survivors Insurance and Federal Disability Insurance Trustees’ Report warned:
Under the Trustees’ intermediate assumptions, Social Security’s total cost is projected to exceed its total income in 2018 for the first time since 1982, and remain higher throughout the projection period. Social Security’s cost has exceeded its non-interest income since 2010…
Under the Trustees’ intermediate assumptions, OASDI cost is projected to exceed total income throughout the projection period, and the dollar level of the hypothetical combined trust fund reserves declines until reserves become depleted in 2034.
Similarly, the 2018 Medicare Trustees’ Report concluded:
Notwithstanding recent favorable developments, current-law projections indicate that Medicare still faces a substantial financial shortfall that will need to be addressed with further legislation. Such legislation should be enacted sooner rather than later to minimize the impact on beneficiaries, providers, and taxpayers…
The Trustees project deficits in all future years until the [Hospital Insurance] trust fund becomes depleted in 2026.
Under current law, the nation’s fiscal flexibility is diminishing. Despite the strongest year of economic growth since 2006 according to the GDP data released on February 28, the nation continued to experience budget deficits that were rising, both in dollar terms and as a percentage of GDP. In February, the Treasury Department reported a record $234 billion monthly budget deficit. During the first five months of FY 2019, the budget deficit was $544.2 billion or 39% above the FY 2018 deficit for the same period.
Now that Election 2016 no longer haunts the nation’s political landscape, Election 2020 affords candidates an opportunity to return to their basic work as policy makers. Saving Medicare and Social Security can be among the issues that define the campaign season and differentiate serious candidates from those who are unable or unwilling to provide leadership. Many other important issues ranging from the role of markets and trade in the nation’s economy to the importance of its allies in foreign policy can be debated and discussed, as well.
With the distractions of scandal having lifted, no serious political leader will be in a position to claim, “We didn’t see this coming,” should they neglect the great issues of the day. Failure to address those issues will be nothing less than a failure of leadership.
That newly-restored clarity is a welcome development. Now, it’s back to issues.