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Lots of campaign sound and fury, but it's all a waste

WE'LL know soon who won the fiercely contested mid-term elections, but we already know who lost: We all did. This election has been a referendum on President Donald Trump, which suits both Republicans and Democrats just fine. Democrats are betting that the public has increasingly tired of his lies and his vile style. He and his supporters believe that Democrats are again under-estimating his popular appeal.

What's been missing is any realistic engagement with the difficult issues facing the country. In democracies, elections serve not only to select the country's leadership; they also aim to gauge public opinion on the hard issues and to see whether some sort of consensus is possible. The present campaign has featured very little of this kind of constructive politics.

What are some of the hard issues? There's no secret.

Start with budget deficits. In fiscal 2018, the gap between federal spending and revenues was US$782 billion, nearly 4 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP). That's up US$116 billion from last year. Based on current spending and taxes, the Congressional Budget Office expects large deficits forever.

With a 3.7 per cent unemployment rate, no one can attribute these deficits to a weak economy. Put simply, Americans want more government benefits and services than they're willing to pay for in taxes.

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Next, there's immigration. The "wall" is a symbol for both sides. Opposition allows Mr Trump to accuse Democrats of favouring "open borders", raising the spectre of a country overrun by foreigners. For pro-immigration groups, the wall symbolises the simplicity and cruelty of his policies, highlighted by the separation of children from parents.

Finally, global warming. For many Americans, this is the great moral issue of our time. But their fervour is not a policy, and the target of preventing global warming from exceeding 1.5 deg C, measured from the pre-industrial era, is enormously difficult - probably impossible.

What these three issues have in common is this: They're all politically explosive.

Take the budget. To eliminate the existing deficit would require tax receipts to increase by nearly 25 per cent. Or we could reduce spending by a similar amount - that's nearly US$800 billion. The cut would exceed all military spending. Of course, we could also do nothing and gamble that permanently large deficits won't someday cause a huge financial crisis.

All the choices are bad. We should be debating the role of government and how it can be financed. Instead, our political leaders are making proposals that would worsen deficits. Mr Trump backs more tax cuts; Democrats advance expensive new health benefits and guaranteed jobs for all.

Or consider immigration. As a society, the United States has a decent record in assimilating millions of newcomers. But - as today's turmoil demonstrates - too much immigration can fracture society and radicalise politics. The magnitude of immigration is undeniable. One in four people living in the United States is either an immigrant (41 million, 13 per cent of the population) or the US-born child of immigrants (37 million, 12 per cent), reports a study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

Against that backdrop, reasonable compromises should be possible. We ought to be debating the terms: a path to citizenship for most of today's illegal immigrants; some sort of wall; strict penalties on employers for hiring illegals; a switch from family connections to skill-based immigration.

Similarly, any realistic effort to deal with global warming would be difficult and, quite probably, unpopular. Stabilising the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide would require replacing virtually all fossil fuels (oil, coal, natural gas), which now supply roughly four-fifths of the world's energy. Prices would rise; and government regulations would become more intrusive.

Candour would have compelled our political leaders to warn us that sensible policies on the budget, on immigration and climate change require patience and sacrifice. We no longer have the luxury of simply ignoring what we don't like or what we find inconvenient or expensive.

This is, of course, among the hardest challenges facing democracies - the accepting of short-term costs for long-term gains. Under the best of circumstances, it would be difficult to achieve. Politicians want to win. By and large, they tell voters what voters want to hear, even if it is exaggerated, selective or dishonest.

But the fixation on Mr Trump and his antics turned a long shot into an impossibility. It destroyed the prospects of anything resembling rational debate. Indeed, public opinion may be worse informed at the end of this campaign than at the beginning. In this sense, the campaign may have been wasted. THE WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP

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