The 2012 election comes complete with a take-home exam. Voters should demand that every candidate, including the incumbent, take it.
The test consists of a single question:
The new congressional super-committee is supposed to produce another $1.2 trillion to $1.5 trillion in savings over the next decade. Please identify where in the budget you would find these savings, identifying specific program cuts and, if applicable, tax changes. You may exceed the target but may not come up with less.
For purposes of scoring this exam, Congressional Budget Office baselines will be used. You may use any of the alternate baselines employed by the CBO, depending on whether you choose to let the Bush tax cuts expire on schedule and would like to receive budgetary credit for the same.
Answers given in general platitudes -- "winning the future" and "cut, cap and balance" -- without providing specifics will be marked down. Significant points will also be taken off for answers that express the "solution" in terms of percentage cuts or caps, or that envision general reductions -- e.g. "Medicare savings" -- without identifying how these will be achieved. Any paper that mentions the phrase "waste, fraud and abuse" or uses any of those words individually will automatically receive zero credit.
Your assignment is to be submitted by Nov. 23. You may begin now.
I'm serious. No one who believes that he or she ought to be president should be exempt from this essential exercise. The new congressional super-committee will wrangle and, I hope, compromise behind closed doors. This makes sense; trigger-pulling is only going to be averted with some deal-making that can't be conducted in public.
But that doesn't relegate the president or those who want his job to the role of mildly interested bystanders, called on merely to pronounce yea or nay once the final product is produced. For that matter, the exercise should be compulsory for any elected official who supports a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution or who voted against the debt-ceiling deal on the grounds that it did not go far enough. Michele Bachmann, I'm talking to you.
The White House is still deciding how to engage with the super-committee. Its instinct, I suspect, will be to hang back. Any plan the president submits will inevitably become target practice for his opponents and interest groups.
Tough noogies. He's the president. He needs to set out the hard choices he keeps mentioning.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney emerged from what Politico's Ben Smith memorably described as the "Mittness Protection Program" saying he "personally cannot support" the debt deal, and asserting that as president he "would have produced a budget that was cut, capped and balanced." Texas Gov. Rick Perry made Romney look like a profile in courage, with a spokesman declining even to say whether Perry backed the deal.
Bachmann said it "spends too much and doesn't cut enough." Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty complained that lawmakers "just popped a fiscal aspirin and pretended the problem's gonna go away."
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman was the most responsible of the pack, calling the deal a "positive step" and promising to "aggressively advocate" for the super-committee to produce "real cuts, entitlement reform and revenue-neutral tax reforms -- without any tax hikes." Great! Let's see the plan.
If candidates believe that the spending caps in the House-passed "Cut, Cap and Balance Act" are feasible, they should explain what they'd cut.
If they believe that the Constitution should be amended to require a balanced budget, limit spending to 18 percent of the economy and all but preclude tax increases, they should be willing to show the path forward.
The president needs to weigh in. His would-be successors need to beat platitudes into spread sheets. Voters should not settle for less.