Once upon a time, Tom Campbell was a brutally honest candidate for governor of California. Two things changed, however, in a matter of months, one trivial and one portentous. Respectively, I left the state, and Tom Campbell, facing Meg Whitman’s bottomless bank account, switched to the Senate, taking on Carly Fiorina and Barbara Boxer.
Now, this move may have been smart politics: Campbell is only 4 points behind Boxer in the latest PPIC poll. When it comes to honestly and integrity, though, Tom Campbell 2.0 feels more and more like a downgrade.
Earlier in the week, he released a statement attacking the President’s proposed discretionary spending freeze, which he claimed would save $3 billion a year. Since we have no details of the proposal yet, other than OMB’s internal estimate of $250 billion in savings over 10 years, I’m very curious to know the source of Campbell’s numbers. I won’t comment yet on the merits of the spending freeze, but to be fair, Tom Campbell could very well be right that it amounts to “trying to extinguish the sun with a garden hose.”
So what’s his alternative? A hodge podge of ideas he laid out in a speech to the Commonwealth Club of California. His website proudly proclaims that Campbell’s proposal is “specific.” The problem is that any punk like me with a copy of Budget Options can get specific. The challenge is crafting a package that’s sufficient to tame long-term deficits. And on that count, it is Campbell who’s fighting fiscal windmills.
The clearest evidence Campbell’s not nearly as serious as he gives himself credit for is that managed to give a fiscal policy speech without the words “Medicare,” “taxes,” or “Social Security” listed among the proposals. Medicare is the biggest long-term budget buster by such a wide margin that I’m amazed self-proclaimed fiscal conservatives still get away with ignoring it. Meanwhile, our revenues are insufficient to fund the size of government Americans want (and were promised). And Social Security will need to lower its long-term cost trajectory in the next twenty years.
Some of the proposals he does make nevertheless make no sense. Campbell demands that repaid TARP funds go to deficit reduction… which, well, is exactly what they have been used for, save the $99 billion the CBO estimates to be the net cost of the program to the public. President Obama proposed a $30 billion small business credit program in his State of the Union that draws on repaid TARP funds, so voting against this would save $30 billion over some counterfactual baseline, but the CBO hasn’t folded such a program into its own baseline, and at any rate $30 billion is a far cry from what Campbell implies will be $700 billion.
His Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac proposal doesn’t even have a numerical estimate attached to it. Rest assured, though, Tom Campbell says the savings will be “astronomical.” Since I have no love for Fannie or Freddie either, I’ll chalk this one up to a primal scream.
Then there’s his screed against the stimulus. He wants to keep the “beneficial” infrastructure projects and the help that went to state governments, but jettison everything else, which Campbell describes as “boondoggle.” Evidentally, this includes the $307 billion in tax cuts and credits.
His other proposals are a mixture of ideas I like (no more ethanol subsidies) to ones I’m agnostic about but which seem like a waste of breath (no more Amtrak subsidies) to ones that are downright non-starters (cuts to education, including Early Start and graduate loan subsidies). Using the latest CBO numbers, I scored the impact of Campbell’s “specific” proposals from 2010 – 2019 (the CBO baseline goes to 2020 but Budget Options hasn’t been updated yet to go out this far). When the CBO didn’t break out numbers the way Campbell did, I gave him the benefit of the doubt and used his numbers.
Between now and 2019, the CBO projects a cumulative deficit of $6.7 trillion, or $6,710 billion. All told, Tom Campbell’s Commonwealth Club proposals would save $132 billion over this period, or 2% of the deficit. Now that’s not nothing, but it hardly makes Mr. Campbell a fiscal hero. And it’s almost half, ironically enough, of the OMB estimate of the very White House spending freeze Campbell mocks, which, again, is still unverified.
To the objection that Tom Campbell is in the midst of a political campaign, and so is constrained against touching issues as contentious as Medicare, I say fine, but Tom Campbell can’t have it both ways. He can’t run as a straight talker and then tap dance when it comes to the specifics of his signature issue. And to those who retort that Tom Campbell is better than the average politician in Washington, I’d say half-seriously that by numbers alone, his budget simmick is half as fiscally responsible as President Obama’s. More seriously, I’d say that the environment only gets more, not less, partisan as you get to Washington. If Tom Campbell is willing to compromise some principles on the campaign trail to curry favor with the party, then there’s no reason to believe he won’t continue to do so should he win and take office.