Record debt barely dents campaigns

Delaware delegates pray during the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012.

CHARLOTTE — Some unpleasant, uninvited guests have dropped in on the Democratic convention.

The federal debt hit $16 trillion, U.S. factory activity shrank for a third straight month, and a new poll found President Barack Obama’s “unfavorable” ratings higher than his “favorables” for the first time since February.

The nation’s economic problems and Americans’ discontent are clear. So are Republican Mitt Romney’s opportunities.

A big question hanging over the presidential race’s final two months is this: Will the candidates tell voters the unpleasant truths about what it will take to reverse these trends, especially deficit spending, which worries global markets and dismays many Americans?

Also, will Romney bulk up his light-on-details platform in an effort to pull ahead of Obama in the polls? And will Obama use tonight’s acceptance speech to make Americans confront news they don’t want to hear about the long-term prospects for Medicare and Social Security?

Neither seems likely.

Over the past few decades, presidential campaigns have all but dropped appeals such as “Ask what you can do for your country.”

From World War I through the Vietnam War’s height, Congress raised taxes to help pay for such conflicts.

That ended with the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. They were fought far away as major tax cuts from 2001 and 2003 took full effect back home.

Domestic policies took a similar path. Congress, for instance, did not pay for the Medicare prescription drug benefit enacted in 2003.

The nation now borrows 40 cents for every dollar it spends. The new debt level, $16 trillion, was announced Tuesday, as the Democratic convention began.

Millions of Americans say they are worried, even outraged. But Americans also keep electing presidents and lawmakers who pile the debt higher. The nation’s menu is “free lunch,” not “eat your broccoli.”

“The country faces a fundamental disconnect between the services the people expect the government to provide, particularly in the form of benefits for older Americans, and the tax revenues that people are willing to spend” to pay for them, said Douglas Elmendorf, director of the Congressional Budget Office.

That was three years ago. The debt has grown since then.

The irony — some would say hypocrisy — is that both campaigns pay ample lip service to controlling the deficit and debt. Republicans installed a giant “debt clock” in their convention arena in Tampa.

In Tuesday’s Democratic keynote address, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro extolled “a country where everybody pays their fair share, so we can reduce the deficit and create the jobs of the future.”

Whether “everybody” would pay a fair share under Obama’s proposals is much debated. He would extend the Bush-era tax cuts for all households making less than $250,000 a year.

Obama’s 2013 budget proposal called for stimulus-style spending on roads and schools. The plan would have slowed the military’s growth but left the spiraling growth of health care programs for the elderly and poor largely unchecked.

The White House said its plan, which Congress rejected, would have lowered next year’s deficit to $901 billion, compared to the current deficit of about $1.3 trillion.

In speech after speech this week in Charlotte, top Democrats talked about “investing” in programs more than “paying for” services or specifying cuts that would be unpopular.

“If you believe in America, you invest in America,” said Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif. “That’s why it’s not courageous to cut funding for college loans.”

Romney’s tax-and-spending proposals, by virtually every independent analysis, are even more troubling for those hoping to reverse deficit spending.

Unlike Obama, he would accelerate military spending growth, restore $716 billion to Medicare, preserve tax cuts for the wealthiest and cut other taxes including those on investment returns.