It's crunch time in the presidential campaigns. With less than two weeks to go and most polls pointing to a photo finish, both President Bush and Sen. John Kerry are pulling out all the stops -- as long as those stops are in a tiny handful of swing states.
The spin machines are in overdrive; the campaigns are pouring out ads, position papers, talking points and press releases. But they're mostly blowing smoke when it comes to some of the top issues of the day.
At the top of the list: the federal budget crisis and its likely impact on needy Americans today and the children who will some day have to pay the bill.
Both candidates want voters to believe that they have plans to lower taxes, protect vital social programs, fix Social Security, fight terror and slash the deficit all at the same time -- an act of magic that makes the term "voodoo economics," coined by Bush's father, sound like comical understatement.
For Jewish audiences, Israel may be the only issue the candidates talk about, but the budget crisis touches on every one of the community's foreign and domestic priorities.
In 2000, then-Gov. Bush made big tax cuts a major plank in his drive for the White House. And contrary to recent U.S. political tradition, he did exactly what he promised, with the help of a conservative Republican majority in Congress and timid Democrats.
Now, four years after a big budget surplus, the nation is wracking up a record $415 billion deficit in the current fiscal year -- a change the Bush administration attributes to the costs of fighting two wars and the recession.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) disagrees. A much bigger factor, according to the CBO, is the administration's tax cuts, which have produced huge revenue shortfalls.
However, Bush, known for his refusal to back down from a position taken, has promised more of the same in a second term, insisting that the ultimate result will be economic growth that will make up for the revenue shortfall.
Kerry thinks the tax cuts unfairly benefit the rich but fearing the "tax-and-spend liberal" label, proposes middle-class cuts of his own, all the while promising more domestic and defense spending.
Bush is pursuing faith-based budgeting, with the poor and future generations slated to pick up the tab if his prayers aren't answered. Kerry, anxious to avoid political minefields, isn't telling Americans the hard truth about the impending economic train wreck.
The net result: Campaign 2004 is taking place in economic fantasyland.
Both candidates are making promises that can only compound the current crisis and dodging the issue of where the money will come from. Neither is telling the American people what they need to hear: That the current situation will require agonizing, hard-headed decisions about spending priorities, and that tax cuts that are not demonstrably meant to spur economic expansion will just speed the rush to insolvency.
Neither seems willing to fight a Congress that can't manage to pass a budget or realistic spending bills and can't say no to budget-busting pork.
If the presidential candidates don't have any economic vision, some lawmakers do, hoping the runaway deficit will eventually allow them to do what they've been unable to do in the past -- radically downsize government and finally start to dismantle programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. The idea is to cut back government programs "to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub," in the immortal words of ultraconservative guru Grover Norquist.
Absent visionary leadership by either Bush or Kerry, that's the fate awaiting America's beleaguered social programs.
For the Jewish community, the stakes are obvious. Despite its relative affluence -- many Jews are benefiting handsomely from Bush's tax cuts -- the community's traditional social justice concerns are in danger of being swept away by the tidal wave of red ink in federal ledgers.
The mounting budget crisis threatens the health and welfare programs that the Jewish community has come to depend on to meet the needs of its most vulnerable members. Social Security is teetering on the brink of disaster, but the budget emergency means that there are few options for saving it. Privatization, the administration's all-purpose panacea, is unlikely to do the trick and could make things much worse.
The budget crisis threatens the very prosperity that has provided a secure base for the Jewish community at home.
Abroad, the skid to insolvency will undermine the ability of the United States to serve as a force for stability, a direct threat to the State of Israel. It will also cripple the global war against terrorism.
Neither candidate is facing up to the train wreck both parties have engineered. The results could hurt the United States even more than the terrorists who have attacked it.
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