SAN DIEGO - On a day the Democrats' presidential aspirants are here courting their party's California state convention, one hopes they'll begin answering some of the momentous questions they've been ignoring on the campaign trail.
Three questions in particular stand out as especially urgent for the Democrats if they regain the White House. Answers to these questions should be a prerequisite for voters deciding which Democrat is best qualified to lead their party in the 2008 presidential campaign.
- What follows in Iraq after most or all U.S. troops are withdrawn?
- What should be done to cope with the tsunami of entitlement spending for Social Security and Medicare after the baby boomers begin retiring next year?
- What strategy will keep the U.S. economy strong and growing?
The Iraq war is by far the most contentious issue of the presidential campaign now begun. The Democrats are pledged, more or less, to pulling the plug on the U.S. mission in Iraq. But then what? The predictably destabilizing consequences of withdrawing most or all U.S. combat forces from Iraq aren't being debated or even discussed by the Democrats.
The Baker-Hamilton commission, cited selectively by Democrats where it challenged the Bush administration's conduct of the war, warned of dire consequences of any premature withdrawal. The very real peril cited by Baker-Hamilton, and by U.S. military commanders in the region, is leaving Iraq a failed state and a breeding ground for terrorism. That would pose a continuing threat to the United States and its allies and interests across the Middle East and beyond.
Democrats have an obligation to say what they think these consequences would be. They have a further obligation to explain what plans, if any, they have to protect the most vital American interests in that strategic region if U.S. forces leave Iraq in chaos.
On entitlements, it's a dead certainty that the huge bow wave of retiring baby boomers will begin swamping the federal budget during the next president's second term.
The recent Social Security trustees' report forecasts that the current Social Security surplus will turn into a deficit in 2016. Absent any corrective action, the Social Security deficit would then grow steadily year by year into a yawning chasm as millions more boomers retire and begin claiming benefits.
Medicare spending, $408 billion last year, is projected to balloon from $513 billion in 2009 to $862 billion by 2016. Like Social Security, the bill for Medicare would continue to grow larger each year as ever more boomers become beneficiaries.
If any of the would-be Democratic presidential candidates has a plan to head off this looming fiscal calamity, they're keeping it a secret. Their deafening silence on this issue is unconscionable for anyone asking the voters to put them in the Oval Office. Republicans are largely silent, too, yet the Democrats are especially suspect on entitlement spending. It was the Democrats who flatly refused to consider President Bush's modest Social Security reform in 2005, and without offering even a hint of an alternative.
Unless sweeping reforms of Social Security and Medicare are enacted - inevitably entailing some combination of curtailed benefits, higher taxes or, alternately, partial privatization - in the next few years, the United States is headed for a fiscal disaster.
Democrats, let's hear your plans for avoiding catastrophe.
A robust and growing economy remains a notable Bush achievement, although the Democrats won't say so, of course. But the question for the campaign to succeed Bush is how to keep it that way. None of the Democratic presidential hopefuls has advanced a comprehensive economic strategy.
Most economists agree that Bush's tax cuts, particularly the across-the-board reductions in 2003, fueled the steady economic growth of recent years. With those tax cuts due to expire in 2010, a Democratic president would face fundamental decisions on taxes and the economy.
Six of the eight Democratic presidential contenders appear to favor raising taxes on Americans in the upper-income brackets. That's good politics for Democrats. But would higher taxes on incomes, capital gains and stock dividends slow economic growth? It's a safe bet they would, but Democrats aren't saying.
Less free trade, more stringent regulatory measures and a less market-friendly energy policy, all favored by most Democrats, would also affect the economy. But these issues, too, are rarely discussed in what little we are hearing from Democrats on economic issues.
Before Democrats pick their candidate for 2008, we're all entitled to a lot more answers on fateful questions from their party's presidential contenders.