Stark Choices, No Easy Answers


With the selection of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) as Mitt Romney’s vice presidential running mate, this year’s presidential election is shaping up as a sharp confrontation between radically different views of the federal government and economic policy. And a Jewish community that shares the general concern about the fragile economic recovery but also remains committed to an array of critical social programs will also be faced with the clearest choices in many election cycles.

Ryan, a seven-term legislator who chairs the House Budget Committee, has offered a sweeping budget plan that would force drastic cuts in a range of federal programs and a restructuring of others as a way of getting federal spending under control. He also supports the continuation of GOP policies that aim to stimulate growth by keeping taxes low.

There is little doubt weak growth and continuing high unemployment will trump all other issues as the campaigns gear up for the home stretch, and both sides believe they have strong arguments to make. Entitlement reform is long overdue, but until now both parties have just played partisan games with the issue, even as the ranks of the elderly and the poor swell.

Jewish voters have a huge and multifaceted stake in the outcome of this debate.

Poverty in our community is on the rise, with more families needing assistance from an array of government programs. With an aging population and Jewish charities already overburdened, the Jewish community is particularly dependent on programs such as Medicare and Social Security that serve the elderly. And polls show that American Jews retain their longstanding commitment to using government programs to help the poor, improve education and protect the environment. At the same time, Jews are overwhelmingly members of the middle class — a segment threatened by an unsustainable deficit that limits future growth and, ultimately, will undermine those very programs.

Once again the parties are asking us to choose between conflicting views about the very essence of how the government operates in our lives; Ryan’s presence on the GOP ticket suggests that this time, the differences are real, not just a matter of campaign trail posturing.

Differences over Israel policy are harder to judge. Obama has a mixed record — presiding over a considerable increase in U.S-Israel military cooperation, but failing to make an emotional connection to the Israeli people and to advance a peace process he once said was a top priority. Romney, of course, is untested on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and while some on the right praised his recent trip to Israel (he said all the right things, they argue), others saw some of his pronouncements as pandering. How many times have we heard promises to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem or for America to take a more active role in bringing Israel and the Palestinians together?

But on the economy, the issues are real and immediate. The choices the next president and Congress make will have a deep impact on a Jewish population that is older, less affluent and more diverse than ever. And they will have an impact on a Jewish state that needs a robust strategic partnership with Washington — something that will be harder to maintain in an environment of wholesale, sweeping budget cutting.

What we need now is intelligent, rational debate about the direction government policy will take as we seek ways to maintain our unprecedented prosperity in a very uncertain environment, while also meeting the needs of those who have been left behind by a fast-changing world economy. And we need what has been grievously lacking on Capitol Hill in recent years: a willingness by leaders of both parties to compromise, not hold to maximalist positions in the interests of partisan gain.

What we do not need are cheap slogans and promises of easy, pain-free fixes. Campaign year slogans won’t fix our faltering economy. It will take hard work, serious debate and a willingness to compromise to accomplish that goal. Whether you subscribe to the Democratic or the Republican economic gospel, there will be no easy way out of our current economic plight, and politicians who promise panaceas are part of the problem, not part of the solution.