John McCain will balance the budget by the end of his first term. The near-term path to balance is built on three principles:
• Reasonable economic growth. Growth is an imperative – historically the greatest success in reducing deficits (late 1980s; late 1990s) took place in the context of economic growth.
• Comprehensive spending controls. Bringing the budget to balance will require across-the-board scrutiny of spending and making tough choices on new spending proposals.
• Bi-partisanship in budget efforts. Much as the late 1990s witnessed bipartisan efforts to put the fiscal house in order, bi-partisan efforts will be the key to undoing the recent spending binge.
Principle 3 is the most interesting. McCain is basically channeling Jonathan Rauch and arguing that, Hey, the Democrats are gonna run Congress. So elect me and bask in the benefits of gridlock. He’s probably on to something there.
But even with that, I find it extremely hard to believe that a McCain administration could get us to a balanced budget by 2013. Certainly not with the policies outlined in his new briefing paper. First, he promises several tax cuts but identifies no sources of replacement revenue. Second, there simply isn’t enough non-military, non-entitlement fat in the budget to generate the couple hundred billions of dollars in cuts needed to bring the budget in balance in good times in the absence of new taxes (or at least I’m not going to believe that there is until the McCain campaign presents a list of exactly which government programs they plan to cut). Third, and perhaps most importantly, the current economic malaise looks like it’s going to hang on for a while. The budget surpluses of the late Clinton years were the product of an economic boom and stock market bubble that were almost a decade in the making. Would you really want to bet on that happening again just four-and-a-half years from now?
Now I’m not saying that Barack Obama would balance the budget by 2013 either. But as far as I know he hasn’t promised to do so.
Update: From James Pethokoukis, who just got off a conference call with McCain advisers Douglas Holtz-Eakin and Meg Whitman:
I asked Holtz-Eakin for some details on how exactly his boss was planning on balancing the budget after four years. How fast will the economy have to grow? What programs will be eliminated? What will the pace of discretionary spending have to be?
All I got were generalities and historical arguments. Definitely would not pass the Russert test. I can only guess that they are betting that people will want to know how a candidate will create jobs and reduce gas prices and not much more.