For many Americans, this year's presidential election can't end soon enough. The Politifact exposés have become tedious, the Big Bird gags aren't funny any more, and even Joe Biden's laughing gas seems to have worn off.
The 2012 election has been as cynical as any in modern times, with plenty of mudslinging, fearmongering, and deceit, plus the added bonus of endlessly streaming negative TV ads funded by the new bogeyman of politics, SuperPACs. Democracy is often messy, but this year's election has been a teenager's bedroom.
Yet even a rambunctious teenager shows occasional flashes of maturity, and amid the spitballs, this year's candidates may have accomplished a few important things. Such as:
1. Starting a discussion about Medicare: This program is the single-biggest budget buster on the federal books, and it's also one of the hardest to cut. Nearly 50 million seniors receive Medicare benefits, with those ranks certain to swell as the baby boomers flood into retirement. At $500 billion per year, Medicare costs almost as much as the defense budget—but its payouts increase automatically with healthcare inflation, since it's an entitlement. Anybody who favors smaller government implicitly favors a cutback in Medicare benefits, since it's such a huge expenditure of taxpayer dollars.
The old canard about Medicare is that it's a third rail of politics—touch it and you die. But Mitt Romney touched it by choosing Paul Ryan as his running mate, and lived to tell the tale. Ryan has made it his life's work to reform Medicare by transforming it into a voucher system that pays every senior a fixed sum they can use to pay for healthcare—but forces them to bear extra costs out of their own pocket. As structured, Ryan's plan would make Medicare more sustainable, but require most seniors to pay more of their own money for healthcare. It's not a popular idea, yet the reality is that somebody is going to have to pay more—either taxpayers, or seniors, or both. At least we're moving toward a more realistic discussion of the issue.
2. Getting serious about the boring but important budget deficit: Bashing the government for spending too much is another old standard—except now, it's becoming a problem that can't be dodged for much longer. The government has been spending roughly $1 trillion more than it takes in each year, with the national debt now exceeding $16 trillion. By early next year, the U.S. credit rating may be downgraded for the second time in two years. If Washington's cost of borrowing starts to rise, taxpayers could face an urgent crunch that forces them to choose between paying higher taxes or accepting sharp cuts in services and benefits. One way or another, the privileges of being able to borrow indefinitely are about to end.
Mitt Romney says he'll balance the budget by 2020, but his math has drawn extreme skepticism from many nonpartisan budget experts. Obama hasn't pledged to balance the budget, but only to trim the national debt by $4 trillion over 10 years, which would still be difficult. The good news is that the argument over how much to do, by when, has at least revealed general agreement about one thing: It's time to do something about the nation's huge, recurring deficits.
3. Setting the stage for a tax overhaul: Taxes have been another charged topic during the campaign, since they're certain to go up if nobody comes up with an innovative way to get more bang out of every taxpayer dollar. Romney and Obama disagree about some major issues. Romney wants to cut everybody's taxes, for example, while simultaneously balancing the federal budget. Obama generally wants to leave taxes where they are for most people, while raising them on the wealthy.
But the two candidates also agree on a few key principles. Both advocate a cleaner tax code with fewer deductions and loopholes. Both want to lower the corporate income tax rate to make it more consistent with tax rates in other countries (though Romney would lower it more). And both have either said or hinted that they'd accept higher taxes on investment income in exchange for other types of tax reform. There's still plenty to fight over—foretelling an epic battle in Congress if tax reform goes forward—but the 2012 campaign has unwittingly revealed where Republicans and Democrats might find reason to agree. They just need to stop campaigning for a while.
Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.