For far too long, neither political party has been willing to face the reality that it is mathematically impossible to balance the federal budget without reforming the nation's entitlement programs and enhancing revenue.
By choosing Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as his running mate, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney appears to have shifted the focus of the campaign toward facing these problems.
We welcome that, if it leads to meaningful debate and a discussion of real solutions. Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are popular programs. They also consume nearly two-thirds of all federal spending and 100 percent of all tax revenue collected. Add in military spending and it's clear the federal budget is on a trajectory toward disaster, with mounting deficits and likely further downgrades to the nation's credit rating in the future, unless solutions are found.
Ryan authored a plan that would restructure Medicare and reform the tax code, among other things. It was controversial from the start. Neither party has wanted to deal with issues that would, by their nature, lead to unhappiness among voters.
But with Ryan on the ticket, we hope President Obama now also will put forth a meaningful deficit-reduction plan of his own. A task force he created early in his term, headed by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, arrived at a different sort of proposal that included some tax hikes, spending cuts and reforms. It was no less controversial than Ryan's plan, but different in several aspects. That might be a good place for the president to start.
Unfortunately, real economic discussions have been absent from this presidential race. One side has focused on a general plan to tax the rich and the other has focused on not raising taxes. Meanwhile, a host of mostly meaningless side issues have dominated political talking points and media attention.
That is an astounding thing, considering how runaway public debt has put much of Europe in a state of crisis, and how two substantial cities in California have filed for bankruptcy. Many U.S. states face crises fueled by underfunded pension plans and languishing tax revenues.
At the end of this year, several automatic tax hikes and spending cuts will go into effect unless Congress reaches some sort of a negotiated settlement on a plan to reduce deficit spending. Standard & Poor's already has reduced the nation's credit rating.
Against this backdrop, it is difficult to understand how the presidential race has not focused on the looming crisis, or why the electorate has not demanded a discussion that goes beyond meaningless slogans and name-calling.
Ryan's proposal isn't perfect. Neither was the Simpson-Bowles plan. But they should provide starting points to a serious discussion. Real solutions will require some pain, but providing no solution likely will end with the greatest pain of all, as Europe is finding.
With Ryan in the mix, perhaps it will be harder for America to ignore this looming crisis. Perhaps the electorate will begin to understand the nature of a problem that Washington has spent decades avoiding.