The national debt clock during the first day of business at the Republican… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)
TAMPA, Fla. – One of the few pieces of business that transpired during Monday’s 10-minute session of the Republican convention was the unveiling of a “debt clock” that will track how much the national debt will have increased by the time the delegates end their work Thursday night.
It’s the sort of political theater that both parties enjoy – a way of stoking the passions of activists and, perhaps, catching the attention of an undecided voter or two. In the case of the Republicans, a major campaign talking point has been President Obama’s role in worsening what Mitt Romney has called a “prairie fire of debt.”
But the subject is not one on which either party is pure. Nor is it clear which candidate might reduce the debt more if elected. Indeed, any voter who wants to compare how Romney and Obama might change the debt clock over the next four years will quickly run into a stack of unanswered questions – largely on the GOP side.
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Some questions do have clear answers. The national debt did increase sharply under Obama’s watch. Whenever the government runs a deficit – and it has since early in the George W. Bush administration – the government sells bonds to cover the gap between spending and revenue. Those bonds constitute the debt. The size of the deficit ballooned during the recession. Obama says that was unfortunate but necessary to keep the economy from getting even worse; Republicans disagree.
There’s also no question that Bush increased the size of the national debt, too. His Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, actually balanced the federal budget, setting the debt on a path to being wiped out. That changed after Bush’s two major rounds of tax cuts and the costs of pursuing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Obama, as president, has an annual requirement to submit a detailed federal budget. A president’s budget covers not just the immediate year, but the next several, giving a fairly clear sense of what choices he would make in the future. In Obama’s case, that future includes efforts to shrink the annual deficit, but not eliminate it entirely. Moving immediately to a balanced budget would hurt the economy too much, administration officials say.
Obama’s plan would aim to hold the deficit to about 3% of the total economy – a level considerably lower than this year and roughly equal to the expected rate of economic growth. If achieved, that level would keep the debt stable as a share of the entire U.S. economy.
Romney says he wants to balance the budget within four years, but he has not spelled out a plan to do so. Instead, most of the plans he has talked about specifically – significant new tax cuts, increased defense spending, no changes in Medicare or Social Security until people now 55 reach retirement age, postponing the automatic spending cuts scheduled to start Jan. 1 – would make the deficit bigger, not smaller, and add to the debt, not subtract from it.
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Earlier this summer, as he pressed forward with an attack on Obama for staging a “raid” on Medicare to help pay for his health reform law, Romney pledged to reverse cost cuts in Medicare that had been expected to save some $716 billion over 10 years. He said nothing about how he would cover the increased cost.
Some Republicans have urged Romney to offer more specifics on his policies. But strategists in both parties know that voters tend to dislike government spending in the abstract, but favor most specific programs. As a result, the next four days will likely bring us a clock, but not much by way of plans to reverse it.
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