Less than seven months ago I wrote this article to express my concerns over the national debt which had just eclipsed $20 trillion. The point of the article was that the media were much more concerned about the debt decades ago when it was much smaller. I referenced a few articles to illustrate my point. Nowadays, the media mostly ignores the debt. When it does address the debt, it’s often to justify it or to persuade readers that it isn’t really that important.
Similarly, elected officials don’t concern themselves with the debt either. With few exceptions, the only time we hear politicians express concerns about the debt is in the context of an argument opposing a spending program or initiative they don’t otherwise support. Common examples of this dynamic are (1) the typical Democrat opposing new or expanding defense spending and (2) the typical Republican opposing new or expanding social programs. Debt is a concern only when the other party wants to increase spending on its favored programs.
Yesterday, I attended the FOX News sponsored debate among the three leading candidates for West Virginia’s GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate. Just how much the debt doesn’t matter to contemporary politicians was briefly, but poignantly put on full display. Characterizing their politics and public appeal broadly, the three candidates represent different components of the Republican Party quite well. Patrick Morrisey would be characterized as the most traditionally conservative, Evan Jenkins as a moderate and Don Blankenship as an independent thinking political outsider.
They were asked a very specific question by Martha MacCallum regarding the national debt and the notion that the debt problem can’t be resolved without entitlement reform. She asked whether they’d consider accepting any changes to Social Security, Medicaid or Medicare.
Don Blankenship responded that we need fewer people on welfare and more people working. Evan Jenkins said Medicare and Social Security should absolutely be protected and then went into a somewhat non-responsive commentary regarding the recent tax cut and how a good job can solve a lot of problems. Patrick Morrisey did limit his specific commitment to “seniors”, leaving open the question of whether he’d consider changes to entitlements for “non-seniors”. He then pivoted to the tired refrain regarding the need to stop waste, fraud and abuse.
If the national debt really mattered to any of these candidates – three candidates representing a cross section of the broader party – they whiffed on their opportunity to explain it to West Virginia’s voters. But let’s not ignore the underlying reality. If the national debt mattered to voters, it would matter to politicians as well. The reason candidates for high office get away with answering serious questions about the national debt with hollow platitudes and well-worn but nonserious allusions to the need for a stronger economy, more jobs and attacking waste and abuse is because the we let them.
The American political experience is still an experiment in self-governance. Whether people are up to the task of permanently and successfully governing themselves is still an open question. Less than seven months ago the debt had just eclipsed $20 trillion. Today, it is well over $21 trillion. Does the national debt matter? If so, how will our experiment end well for our children and our grandchildren if “we the people” continue to allow our public officials to ignore it?