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Robert Samuelson: The Democrats' fairy-tale campaigns

In this May 18, 2019, file photo, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks at a house party campaign stop in Rochester, N.H.
FILE - In this May 18, 2019, file photo, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks at a house party campaign stop in Rochester, N.H. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)
Robert F. Bukaty, Associated Press

"And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country." John F. Kennedy's inaugural speech, Jan. 20, 1961

WASHINGTON — Watching the Democrats' presidential campaigns, it's hard not to be struck by the huge gap that has opened up between Kennedy's goal and what ordinary Americans now believe and practice. Kennedy urged us to be unselfish, but broad sectors of the American public now repudiate Kennedy's rhetoric.

They expect the government (aka, "the country") to do for them what they don't want to do for themselves, or are incapable of doing. The result is an air of unreality to the campaigns, as if the energetic expansion of government can solve most problems and cure most defects of American democracy.

The lessons of the past do not seem to have been absorbed or analyzed with significant rigor. Anyone who has paid the slightest bit of attention knows that government has expanded substantially over the past half century.

Government today does more things for more people than ever in U.S. history. To describe the change: in 1960, defense outlays were 52 percent of total federal spending; in 2018, the comparable figure was 15 percent. Still, we seem to have more problems than ever requiring a whole new set of "solutions" to improve society — or, in practice, make it worse.

Consider some of the ideas brandished by the various candidates: universal health coverage, whether "Medicare for all" or some other scheme; "free" college at state schools; subsidies for child care; "infrastructure" expansion; across-the-board salary increases in teachers' salaries; so-called "baby bonds" (annual contributions to savings accounts of children); plans to control climate change.

Doubtless, there will be more. What are we to make of this? Consider some initial observations.

First, let's admit that some government programs do need "fixing." But the programs that most need it are the least likely to get it, because they're too popular or too complex to change. The immigration system is a mess. It neither limits the flow of immigrants nor promotes the assimilation of those here.

Likewise, spending for older Americans — mainly on Social Security and Medicare — is crowding out other programs. To reflect longer life expectancies, eligibility ages should be gradually raised. Health care spending should be controlled for similar reasons. But proposals to address these problems have been around for years with little action.

Second, although the campaigns have focused on domestic issues, the most important tasks of the next president will involve foreign affairs — repairing the United States' damaged reputation with the rest of the world.

If Trump wins a second term, this obviously won't happen. But if he doesn't, his successor will need to focus intensely on strengthening military alliances, rebuilding trade relations and dealing with potentially hostile actors — Russia, China or rogue states. The United States remains the world's most powerful nation, even if its economic, military and cultural power is much reduced from its peak. Isolationism won't work in a world so tightly interwoven.

Third, no matter which Democrat wins in 2020 — assuming one does — many of the proposals now being peddled by the hordes of hopefuls will probably not be adopted. The costs will prove too high. Recall: Between now and 2029, federal budget deficits already will total about $11 trillion, according to estimates by the Congressional Budget Office. No one knows how much all the new proposals would cost, but the amount would probably be in the trillions of dollars over a decade. Even if this were fully covered by tax increases, the price would be enormous.

The conclusion that emerges from this overview is that the campaigns — and remember we're still about 18 months away from the election — are promoting fairy tales. They concentrate on a domestic agenda, a shopping list of liberal and progressive favorites, when the most pressing issues and problems facing the next president will probably involve foreign affairs.

We can't easily judge who's best equipped for the job as it will actually evolve as opposed to how we imagine it will evolve. There's a fundamental mismatch that reveals a political culture exactly the opposite of what Kennedy recommended. For too many years, Americans have asked what the country could for them instead of what they could do for their country.

There may be a final irony here. Even if some of the campaign promises are adopted in the future, it seems unlikely, based on historical experience, that they will produce all the desired benefits. This disappointment, if it occurs, may well be laid at the feet of government's strongest advocates.