Voters, beware a bum’s rush

Americans are clearly upset about the economy. They’re concerned about the deficit and about the national debt. In times like these, a “throw the bums out” sentiment is understandable. But if we want to reduce the deficit and start trimming the national debt, which today stands at more than $13 trillion, who do we throw out? The Democrats? The Republicans? Or both, as the “tea party” would have it? Before deciding, voters should consider what has caused our rising annual deficits and the biggest national debt in our history.

The first dramatic increase in the debt, indeed the biggest in the nation’s history, occurred during the eight years of the Reagan administration. Many Americans were quite happy during this period because of hefty tax cuts. If President Reagan had pushed through cuts in federal spending equal to the loss of revenues from those tax cuts, he might have prevented deficit financing. But he did not do this. His budget was significantly bigger than that of his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, and the federal debt ballooned. Under Reagan, $4 trillion was added to the national debt, largely driven by increases in military spending every year for eight years. This is not a partisan judgment. It is a statement of exactly what happened.

President Clinton added to the national debt during his years in office, but at a far lower rate than either Reagan or President George H.W. Bush.

The debt rate again accelerated dramatically during the eight years of the Bush-Cheney White House. In this span, another $4 trillion was added to the national debt. Much of the increase was due to a combination of tax cuts and the pursuit of two highly dubious wars, which have carried enormous economic and human costs.


First, the tax cuts. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington estimates that if the Bush cuts are extended to 2014 as Republicans in Congress would like, the federal government will have lost $3.9 trillion in revenue for the decade 2004-14.

As for the war in Iraq, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz of Columbia University and Linda J. Bilmes, a professor of public policy at Harvard, have concluded that the war’s direct and long-term indirect costs will exceed $3 trillion. These costs are itemized in their book, “The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict.” An example of an indirect cost would be the tens of thousands of young men and women crippled in mind or body fighting in the war who must be cared for medically, many for the rest of their lives.

The cost of the war in Afghanistan, which is going into its 10th year, is difficult to calculate because it is still escalating. But it could well have a direct and indirect cost of $2 trillion in the end — and that’s if President Obama withdraws troops quickly starting next summer. This is money, much of it borrowed, that we are spending to pursue a war in a place where no invader has ever been successful — not Alexander the Great, not the Mongolians, not the British, not the Russians.

It is not easy for me to move back and forth between costs in dollars and costs in human life. How do you estimate the cost of a gallant young American soldier lying dead on the sands of a foreign desert at age 18 or 28? For that matter, what is the cost of killing a young Afghan or a young Iraqi? And what is the cost of America’s standing in the world sinking in the eyes of too many of our fellow humans?


I would like to see the House and Senate remain in Democratic hands, because I think the Democrats are better equipped to address the country’s most pressing national issues, including the economy and the wars. And I am still hopeful, despite prevailing opinion, that the party may prevail in Tuesday’s election. I remember, after all, 1948, when most of the pundits, journalists and pollsters were predicting that President Truman would be defeated by Thomas E. Dewey. My wife, Eleanor, and I were living in Evanston, Ill., where I was pursuing a doctorate in history at Northwestern University. Very late on election night, I went down to Hoos Drug Store at the end of our block to pick up the early edition of the Chicago Tribune. There it was in the headline: “Dewey Defeats Truman.” In short order, the second edition of the Tribune came out, and it informed us that Truman had won.

But putting who wins aside, what I most hope is that voters in this election will tune out the noise of the negative campaign ads and shrill pundits and instead focus on the issues. Let’s not simply throw the bums out. Let’s at least try to find out who the bums are and who they aren’t. And above all, let’s not inadvertently throw the bums in. We don’t know them as well as the bums who are already there.

George McGovern served in the U.S. Senate from 1963 through 1980. He ran against Richard Nixon for president in 1972.