The U.S. debt clock is rapidly approaching $16 trillion. This year's federal deficit is in excess of $1.3 billion. These are staggering sums, mind-numbing in their sheer size. And for the 99.9 percent of us who were not math majors, almost impossible to get one's brain around. But comprehend it we must, as the deficit and what to do about it remain central to the outcome of Campaign 2012.
How did we dig a hole this deep? Well, that part of the equation is easy to understand. It's all about the "politics of yes" — that persistent, bipartisan disease whereby presidents and legislators seek voter approval through limitless federal spending. Here, every new interest group (and spending request) is received approvingly. It's easy: Just say "yes," tell the voters about your latest and greatest way to expand government, and cruise to reelection.
Both parties are at fault. Indeed, a guaranteed applause line in national politics is to point out that Republicans are the party of big government, while Democrats are the party of really, really big government. Enormous deficit spending over the past 30 years confirms this unfortunate laugh line. (By the way, the federal debt has grown by $2.3 million since you started reading this piece.)
It is an inconvenient truth (to borrow a phrase) that the politics of yes only works when the voters are complicit. On the left, there are precious few consequences for overspending taxpayer dollars. The mindset is familiar enough: The fact of unmet societal needs requires additional spending to meet those needs. For context, check out the rhetoric from the Occupy crowd — their list of needs is endless, as are their expectations for government services and new revenue to fund those services.
The end of the Bush tax cuts? Sure, but not enough. The Buffett Rule? Sure, but not enough. Major new taxes on capital and consumption? Sure, but not enough. (If this mindset begins to remind you of Maryland, you may be one of the many considering a change in residence in the near future — but that's another story.)
On the right, there is far too much situational conservatism. You know it when you see it: Cut all those other programs, just not mine. I had firsthand experience with this mindset as a congressional whip. It's not pleasant to watch, nor does it generate enthusiasm at the grass-roots level. Everyone has to be "all in" if we are to ever get serious about putting the brakes on our spending insanity.
Not so long ago, it was incomprehensible that America's credit rating could be downgraded. Not too many years ago, persistent annual deficits in the trillions were poisonous to one's political ambitions. At the beginning of this millennium, it was never contemplated that one four-year term could add $5 trillion to the national debt.
Yet, here we are, staring down the barrel of yearly trillion-dollar deficits and being lectured to by the Chinese.
But all is not lost. Everyone recognizes entitlement reform is the key ingredient in deficit reduction. And now two leaders have proposed a substantive plan to reform the most difficult entitlement, Medicare.
Rep. Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, and Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, are of different political persuasions. Mr. Ryan is the steadfast conservative, Mr. Wyden the unreconstructed liberal. Yet both recognize the program is on an unsustainable fiscal path. Accordingly, their reform plan would allow seniors to either stay enrolled in traditional Medicare or qualify for a government subsidy to help pay for private coverage.
That both took considerable political risk to lead is an understatement. Mr. Ryan's rising star is diminished every time a Democratic-sponsored "Mediscare" campaign succeeds, as it did in last year's infamous New York 26th District special election. For Mr. Wyden, it's worse. Many Democratic partisans view him as a turncoat. Their lament: How can we claim Republicans want to throw granny over the cliff when one of our most prominent progressives is leading the charge for reform?
The Ryan-Wyden proposal is not perfect. But it is a substantial proposal. It deserves due consideration if we are (finally) serious about putting an end to the politics of yes.
Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding, the author of "Turn this Car Around" — a book about national politics — and Maryland chairman for the Romney presidential campaign. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.