The juxtaposition of a fictional politician who runs on an a humorous platform of increased government spending presented against the gloomy forecast of a nation in fiscal peril made for an interesting discussion in Washington Tuesday.
In advance of two blue ribbon panels dedicated to coming up with solutions to the government's inability to pay off its debts or produce a balanced budget, a non-profit group unveiled three television ads that will soon run across the country in the hope that those who watch the spots will be persuaded to join a national movement and force new government policies.
"We are at a unique, historic moment in American politics," said Pete Peterson, chairman of the foundation that bears his name and is dedicated to increasing awareness of the government's fiscal health which he calls "a transcendent threat to this great country."
The three commercials highlight a fictional presidential candidate cutely named Hugh Jidette. Viewers see him on the campaign trail promising increased spending and a bleak future for America's children. The humor belies the concerns that Peterson and others share about the nation's increasing debt--now in excess of $13 trillion--and yearly budget deficits.
It is that number and many other ominous forecasts that made Peterson, a businessman who was Secretary of Commerce under President Nixon, and three well-known political figures to sound like Henny Penny with their concerns about impending doom.
"We are borrowing 40 cents of every dollar we spend," said Senate Budget Committee Chairman and Debt Commission member Kent Conrad, D-N.D. "That cannot continue for much longer. It is totally unsustainable."
"It is impossible for a country to be head over heels in debt and yet retain its independence and freedom of action," Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., said.
The most glum assessment came from former New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici who says the fiscal crunch is a "hidden killer" and historically more perilous than the Cold War or the current War on Terrorism. The Republican called it "the biggest problem we have had since the Second World War. And it must be won the same way. The people must understand it to be a freedom-losing event if we don't attack it right. We will lose significant freedom. We will lose significant power. We will lose significant economic prowess. We might really really turn into a second rate country."
As for solutions to the problem, Domenici says that his plan with former Clinton Administration official Alice Rivlin that will come out next week "will be a revelation because we tried to do one that's moderate but gets you there." But that plan or any other will need leadership from members of Congress and President Obama. That's something Domenici says he hasn't yet seen. "Our leader hasn't decided whether he wants to lead."
Bayh, a Democrat who is leaving the Senate and nearly became President Obama's running mate in 2008, pointed to January's election of Senator Scott Brown, R-Mass., and the huge tea party-fuled Republican victories from last week as instructive lessons. "We just need the politicians in Washington to listen to what the key groups of voters are already saying to tackle this problem."
Conrad didn't offer much about the what the Debt Commission will produce in its report expected December 1. He did join the others who said the solution is a mix of spending cuts and tax hikes. He said the current debate over the future of the Bush era tax rates is less significant than a fundamental overhaul of the tax system.
The Peterson Foundation's campaign can be found at this website: www.oweno.com.