Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are both smart and accomplished individuals. That's why it is so disappointing that neither candidate has taken a truly responsible position when it comes to the nation's fiscal future.
That's not to say that both men haven't advanced some good ideas. Romney, for example, is pushing to limit federal spending, and he's showing political backbone in putting Social Security and Medicare reforms on the table. But Romney also signed the Americans for Tax Reform pledge to "oppose and veto any and all efforts to increase taxes." That is a huge mistake because we cannot possibly climb out of a federal financial hole totaling more than $65 trillion without raising additional revenue through comprehensive tax reform.
At the same time, of course, we need to cut spending by much more than has previously been proposed. But even as Romney calls for spending cuts, he has pledged to boost core defense spending despite the fact the Pentagon is already a bloated bureaucracy.
Romney also needs to provide much more detail about how he would achieve his spending cuts, while addressing the impact these cuts could have. For example, how would his proposed "premium support" model for Medicare affect the out-of-pocket cost for beneficiaries in the future?
For his part, President Obama has been willing to campaign for more tax revenue as well as stressing the need for government to make selected investments in areas such as infrastructure and basic research. These steps are in the right direction, but they need to be addressed as part of a comprehensive fiscal reform effort.
The president's proposals on tax fairness have focused too narrowly on the "Buffett rule," which seeks to get the wealthiest to pay their "fair share." He hasn't raised other important issues of tax fairness, such as this one: How is it that two people with roughly the same income can wind up paying very different amounts in taxes?
The answer lies in our colossal and complex federal tax code, which is filled with deductions, exclusions, credits and other "tax expenditures." These amount to back-door spending by the government, and they create huge inequities even as they drain the nation's treasury. What's needed is comprehensive tax reform that eliminates many of these deductions, or at least restructures them in ways that make common sense.
Moreover, while the president has proposed some spending cuts in defense and elsewhere, he hasn't gone far enough. I would advocate at least a 3-1 ratio of spending cuts to revenue increases.
The current generation of American elected officials is preparing to pass along the bill for its profligate spending to our children and grandchildren — a shameful shifting of the tax burden to people with little or no say in the matter. And what is by far the greatest chunk of our spending? Social Security and Medicare, which already account for more than $46 trillion in liabilities and unfunded promises. Yet the president's budget avoids major reforms to Medicare and does not address Social Security at all. Without action on those programs, we are on a direct path to a huge crisis.
My hope is that, as the presidential campaign unfolds, Obama and Romney will do something that would be truly radical for politicians: speak the full truth about the financial challenges the country faces and what it will take to solve them. They should devote at least one of their debates this fall solely to the nation's fiscal situation, with a format and moderators that will guarantee that substantive questions are posed and that the candidates are pressed for meaningful answers.
Voters in the United States want straight talk, strong leadership and sensible solutions. Anything less will put the nation's future and the American dream at risk. With so much at stake, the presidential candidates should ignore partisan pressures and put the welfare of the nation first.
David M. Walker is a former comptroller general of the United States and CEO of the Comeback America Initiative. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.