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Scot Lehigh

Beyond the fiscal sound bites

THIS PRESIDENTIAL campaign season has featured debates aplenty - and yet, when it comes to fiscal and economic issues, the discussion has been both unedifying and unsatisfying.

The economy, of course, has to be the short-term priority. But over the longer haul, the United States must put its fiscal house in order or nose into an era of decline.

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Yet so far, what we’ve heard from the principal GOP candidates on the economy has been mostly bickering between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry about their respective gubernatorial records and grand assertions of economic acumen. Oh yes, and silly claims about the magical qualities of Herman Cain’s highly dubious 9-9-9 tax plan.

As for the long-term deficit, we now know that all the candidates would reject a deal to cut spending by $10 for each dollar of new revenue - a position that seemed to surprise even the conservative questioners at the Ames, Iowa debate.

Beyond that, however, it’s been more sound bites than specifics. A viewer could almost conclude that the GOP candidates don’t grasp the difference between the recent budget deficits and the nation’s projected long-term fiscal problem. The recent deficits have been caused mostly by the stalled economy and anti-recessionary spending, while the projected longer-term structural imbalance largely reflects the gap between entitlement-program costs for (retiring) baby boomers and the (tax-cut-reduced) level of expected revenue.

That long-term fiscal gap means big choices lie ahead. As one prominent conservative puts it: “The nation faces a fundamental decision about priorities. To maintain current levels of taxation, we will need to substantially reduce spending on the social safety net, including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the new health care program . . . Alternatively, we can preserve the current social safety net and raise taxes substantially to pay for it. Or we may choose a combination of spending cuts and tax increases.’’

Alas, that comes not from one of the Republican presidential hopefuls, but rather N. Gregory Mankiw, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush (and now a Romney adviser), writing in Sunday’s New York Times.

Candidates have a chance to get specific.

Dan McAnespie Hudson High’s football coach (above)
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Voters need a similar candor from the candidates.

And that’s where the Concord Coalition comes in. The well-known centrist anti-deficit watchdog is working with the University of New Hampshire on a series of forums that would feature the individual presidential candidates outlining their plans to UNH students. A panel of UNH law and business school students would then query the candidate about those plans. Concord would first brief the students about our long-term fiscal problems, the better to ensure that they’ll push for more than the simplistic assertions that too often pass as debate answers.

“What we’re hoping for is to bring out an informative discussion of what the candidates are proposing and whether or not those ideas are realistic,’’ says Bob Bixby, Concord’s president.

These events would differ from debates or town meetings in the opportunity for in-depth discussion of a candidate’s plans and the way those plans will affect the next generation.

“To my knowledge, there is no other forum in this state that allows for that sort of exchange,’’ says John Broderick, dean and president of the University of New Hampshire School of Law. Because they’d be open to the press, the discussion would also give the general public a deeper understanding of the candidates’ proposals.

Thus you’d think that any candidate who had substantive economic and fiscal plans and took Granite State primary voters seriously would be eager to participate.

So far, however, the only candidate to commit is former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, who has made New Hampshire his principal focus.

“This is a generation about to inherit many of the problems we have created for ourselves over the last many years,’’ Huntsman told me. “They need to understand what our challenges are and the policy options we have to fix them. Bringing them into this conversation is critically important.’’

He’s right about that. We’ve already saddled this generation with a large load of debt. They deserve more than lip service and a wave in this campaign. And that’s why the rest of the Republican candidates should follow Huntsman’s lead.

Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.
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