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Robert Samuelson: Ambition on display — but what else?

SHARE Robert Samuelson: Ambition on display — but what else?
Democratic presidential candidates from left, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourk

Democratic presidential candidates from left, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney listen to a question during the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Wilfredo Lee, AP

WASHINGTON — What struck me about the first debates among 20 candidates for the Democratic nomination for president was how much they resembled a gaggle of graduate students. All seemed articulate and intelligent. All had a good grasp of the classroom material — in this case, the programs they were advocating or opposing. All were palpably ambitious, eager to show that they were better suited than their rivals, without seeming too egotistical or ruthless. None, however, seemed "presidential."

At this stage, perhaps that is inevitable. Time will pass, and the candidates' strengths or weaknesses will become more apparent. Electoral politics are often likened to sports. If so, we are still in the first inning, and the starting pitcher is still facing the first batter. And yet, I am already left with the uneasy feeling that this campaign may leave us especially ill-informed.

Three issues bother me.

The first is this: The campaigns' attention is focused heavily — almost exclusively — on domestic problems and programs, but the most pressing issues that await the next president will probably involve foreign policy.

How are we to judge the competence and judgments of the rival candidates on matters with which they have little experience? Assuming for the moment that President Trump does not win reelection, how is his successor going to deal with China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and our estranged allies, as well as our trade and economic relations with them?

With the conspicuous exception of former Vice President Joe Biden, none of the candidates has much international experience. To be fair, this is often the case, but the consequences today loom larger, precisely because the post-World War II framework has broken down. Its replacement needs to deal with the reality of a populist backlash — both in the United States and other advanced societies — as well as the need to remain engaged globally. In a world shrunken by technology and trade, we do not have the luxury of neo-isolationism and neo-protectionism, even if Trump thinks we do.

Second: A similar dilemma afflicts domestic policies. As a society, we have committed ourselves to more programs and subsidies than we can easily afford. Despite this, the candidates seem wedded to yet more expensive experiments in social policy.

Shortly before last week's debates, the Congressional Budget Office released the latest version of its annual long-term budget outlook. Even with the economy near "full employment," the federal government runs massive annual budget deficits, meaning that we spend more than we tax. At the moment, those deficits equal about 4% of the economy (gross domestic product) or about $1 trillion annually. Under present tax and spending policies, deficits will grow for decades. The resulting debt — the accumulation of past annual deficits — is now about 78% of GDP, up from 35% of GDP in 2007.

By 2029, it's projected to be 92% of GDP. In its report, the CBO notes that the debt "has exceeded 70% of GDP during only one other period in U.S. history — from 1944 to 1950," reflecting the impact of World War II.

A prudent society would defend itself against a conceivable financial crisis by reducing budget deficits. It wouldn't expand them. Yet, that is what the Democratic candidates propose.

Universal health care? Not a problem. Free college? Yes, indeed. Equal pay for women? Long overdue. A Marshall Plan for Central America? A sensible idea. "Green" jobs — wind and solar power? Absolutely necessary. A write-off of student college debt? An excellent suggestion. The list goes on.

The Democrats' agendas assume that low interest rates and taxes on the wealthy can pay for new benefits. But even if this upbeat assertion turns out to be true, it still leaves massive deficits under present programs. What lies ahead on this path is disillusion, as spending commitments don't match campaign promises. (Inevitably, the same daunting arithmetic faces Trump, now and in the future.)

Third: leadership. The power of the presidency, the late political scientist Richard Neustadt constantly argued, is the capacity to persuade — that is, to convince other people that what the president wants is what they ought to want for their own good and the nation's good. Neustadt's imperative applies to both individual power brokers and to mass constituencies of voters.

In this army of candidates, do we have anyone who can exert that sort of leadership, especially when much of the persuasion that needs doing involves the delivery of relatively unwelcome news?

Who knows? It's still the first inning, and maybe a slugger is coming to bat.