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The math doesn’t add up for both U.S. political parties

If you aren't American, the possibility that the coming presidential election election could hinge on abortion rights may seem absurd. Surely the stagnant world economy, the relative decline of U.S. power and climate change, to name just three, all trump reproductive freedom as issues that should be at the top of the country's agenda.

But up close, the focus on abortion is less bewildering. If, like Todd Akin, the Missouri congressman whose comments focused attention on the issue this week, you believe embryos are full-fledged human beings, no issue is as important as fighting abortion. If you are a woman of child-bearing age who does not share his beliefs, no issue is as important as the right to control your own body, which his view threatens.

The spotlight on abortion rights is also the product of a family feud inside the Republican Party. Republican grassroots activists are desperate to propel the issue to the top of the national agenda, while party elders – and their presidential nominee – are desperate to stop everyone from talking about it.

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If Mitt Romney has his way, the focus will eventually swing back to the issue that most voters spend most of their time thinking about – the economy. If that happens, a man worth talking to is R. Glenn Hubbard, a top Romney adviser who served as the chairman of George W. Bush's Council of Economic Advisers and is now the dean of the Columbia Business School.

Mr. Hubbard sees this election as one that offers Americans a sharp choice about the kind of country they want to live in. "The real issue for the public is to figure out which narrative do we want," he said in a conversation this week. "We can have a bigger government, if that's the public's choice. It'll just require higher taxes on every American."

He is right that the ideological choice U.S. voters face when it comes to the economy and the nature of their country more broadly is clear and significant. While both parties are happy to describe the contrast in broad terms, when it comes to explaining their visions in more than a single sentence, each side is unwilling to trust voters to understand the full implications of their position.

The Republican hypocrisy is to promise lower taxes, a balanced budget and spending cuts that avoid curtailing the essential government services Americans cherish. Eliminating waste and making the state more efficient only goes so far, and Republicans are reluctant to spell out just how much the state would have to shrink to allow a President Romney to both enact his promised tax cuts and balance the budget.

Another way to square Mr. Romney's fiscal circle would be to adopt the credo of former vice-president Dick Cheney, who argued that Ronald Reagan proved that deficits don't matter. Under this approach, a Republican administration would focus on cutting taxes first and leave balancing the budget for a little later.

The point of hypocrisy is to say one thing and to do something rather different. But Mr. Hubbard makes it clear that the ticket shared by Mr. Romney and Paul Ryan has no interest in British-style shock therapy.

"Definitely not," Mr. Hubbard said, when I asked him whether Mr. Romney is proposing a British scenario. "Part of the problem in Europe and in Britain is that austerity has the impression that we have to make every change today. That's not true in Europe and it's especially not true in the United States. What we need is a glide path to fiscal sustainability."

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Call it closet Keynesianism, with a 2013 stealth stimulus disguised as deep tax cuts. That is what many of Mr. Romney's moneyed Wall Street supporters are hoping for.

The Democratic hypocrisy also involves squaring pledges about taxes with promises of fiscal prudence. President Barack Obama vows to maintain a supportive state – and to extend health care coverage – while not raising taxes for the middle class, and eventually balancing the budget.

This math doesn't work either. The state programs upon which many Americans depend cost more than what they pay in taxes. Increasing taxes on the rich will help, but that is not enough. Yet, just as the Republicans won't admit that they can't balance the budget and cut taxes without shrivelling the state to levels many Americans would not tolerate, the Democrats won't tell you that the more generous state they believe in will only be sustainable if quite a few Americans pay more for it.

You get what you pay for – there's a message I think American voters are smart enough to understand.

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