The inane sometimes obscures the consequential, especially in politics. And there certainly has been plenty of nonsense in this year's presidential campaign—from Mitt Romney's flat birther jokes to Big Bird's future employment prospects.
But amidst the silliness, something unexpected has happened: The 2012 presidential campaign has become a substantive discussion about some of America's most pressing issues. Voters able to tune out the inevitable hyperbole are getting a primer on some momentous choices that need to be made soon, with the two candidates defining the plausible range of options.
The most prominent example is Medicare, which accounts for nearly $500 billion in annual spending, or 15 percent of the federal budget. This is the government's fastest-growing big program, and the one that will bankrupt the nation if soaring costs aren't reined in. It's also one of the most politically sensitive topics there is, since seniors who rely on Medicare tend to be strongly opposed to cuts in their benefits—and they vote. That's why Medicare has long been considered the most potent "third rail" in politics—touch it and you die.
Over the summer, it seemed like there would be little serious debate over what to do about Medicare. But that changed when Republican nominee Mitt Romney chose Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as his running mate. Ryan is one of the few politicians in Washington who has proposed serious Medicare reforms, while also laying out how benefits might need to be changed and in many cases reduced.
Ryan's plan isn't popular—for obvious reasons—and many critics, including President Obama, insist it would "end Medicare as we know it" by shredding healthcare benefits for seniors. But this is exactly the sort of discussion we need to be having. Doing nothing about soaring costs will also end Medicare as we know it, because at some point working Americans won't be able to afford the rising tax payments needed to keep the program solvent.
In fact, if the goal is to keep Medicare exactly as it is for the foreseeable future, then a lot of other programs will have to change, including Social Security, defense, safety nets for the needy, and tax credits for the middle class. There's not enough money to go around any more, and it's time for Americans to confront some tough tradeoffs. So it's good news that Romney and Obama and their surrogates are arguing over the future of Medicare in their debates and campaign appearances. Voters need to hear it.
Tax reform is another important topic that's getting some needed attention. Mitt Romney's plan to cut federal income tax rates by 20 percent, for all workers, has some obvious holes. Most important, he hasn't explained how he'd make up for a lot of lost revenue at a time when Washington needs to pare the national debt, not add to it. But Romney has provided an alternative to Obama's more conventional plan, which is to raise taxes on the wealthy while leaving the rest of the tax code more or less alone.
Romney's plan may be unworkable in the real world of retail politics, but there are some good ideas in it that are worth pursuing, even if Romney loses. Many economists support the idea of lowering tax rates while killing or reducing many of the 173 credits, deductions and other loopholes in the tax code—which is the basic idea behind Romney's plan. If done right, this kind of reform would make the tax code more efficient and more fair, while possibly boosting the economy. The mere fact that Romney's plan is generating serious discussion means voters are getting familiar with new ideas that could be helpful in the future.
There's still plenty of folderol and outright deception in the campaign, especially in state-by-state TV ads run by third-party groups that attract less scrutiny than claims made in a prime-time debate. But that, unfortunately, is a constant in politics. Meaningful discussion isn't. Let's hope there's more of it.
Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.