To a remarkable degree, the 2012 presidential election has been about the past. President Barack Obama asks for our vote so he can complete and preserve the work of his first term. Mitt Romney wants a Reaganomics Restoration. Now that the campaign has reached its first debate and, possibly, its final pivotal moment, we hope the candidates will devote more attention to the future: specifically, to what they hope to accomplish over the next four years.
The challenges of those four years will come rushing at Obama or Romney nearly from the minute the polls close. This will be true in foreign policy, from Iran to Syria to Afghanistan to the South China Sea. And it will be true regarding the economy, the budget and health care — subjects of Wednesday's debate. In neither sphere have the candidates given voters an adequate idea of what they would do.
The president-elect will inherit a sputtering economy, with unacceptably high rates of unemployment and imperceptible growth. He will face, in less than two months, a barrage of scheduled tax increases and spending cuts that, if unaltered, would knock the country back into recession and endanger national security. He also will confront, again if policies are unaltered, the longer-term specter of national bankruptcy, as health costs rise, the baby-boom generation retires and tax revenue is swallowed by interest on the swelling debt.
What does Obama offer the jobless that should make them more hopeful about the next four years than the previous four? We don't know. How would he persuade Congress to steer the nation away from the fiscal cliff? We don't know. How would he respond to the threat of insolvency? He would he "preserve Medicare" and "strengthen Social Security." The platitudes are almost more insulting than no answer at all.
But they are no more insulting than Romney's platitudes and unworkable promises. The Republican says he would get the economy moving again by shrinking government and getting it out of our way. Which regulations would he do away with — those that protect the environment, public health and safe workplaces? He says he would reduce tax rates and broaden the tax-collecting base. Which deductions would he abolish or limit: mortgage interest; charitable contributions; health insurance? Romney says the federal government can spend far less as a share of the economy. What would he cut, other than his brave commitment to go after Amtrak and the National Endowment for the Arts? We don't know, we don't know and (other than his vow to block-grant Medicaid and so put at risk health care for the poor) we don't know.
Both candidates portray this election as a stark choice between radically different governing philosophies, and we tend to think that is true. But each has been more eager to scare voters about his opponent's worldview than to explain how his own could cope with 21st-century problems. Slow economic growth, rising inequality, uncapped entitlement spending, suffocating debt: None of these is inevitable for the nation. But they are the endpoint of our current path. Voters have a right to hear how their leaders would avert these outcomes.