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Saturday, June 23, 2018

WASHINGTON — What might a reasonable, constructive presidential campaign look like?

To ask the question invites immediate dissent because we probably can’t even agree across philosophical or political lines what “reasonable” and “constructive” mean.

But let’s try an experiment: Can we at least reach consensus on the sort of debate between now and November that could help us solve some of our problems? I’ll let you in on the outcome in advance: Ideology quickly gets in the way of even this modest effort.

Start out by defining goals everyone could rally around. We need to get the economy moving faster and bring unemployment down, an all-the-more-urgent imperative after last week’s disappointing jobs report. We want all Americans to share prosperity and to reverse the trend toward widening inequality. We want a sustainable budget where, in good times, revenues more or less match expenditures. And we want an education system that prepares members of the next generation for productive and rewarding lives.

Notice a few things about this list. It does not include social issues. Many Americans on both sides of politics legitimately believe that matters such as abortion, gay marriage, gun control, contraception and religious liberty (I could mention others) are of absolutely central concern. Some of them would reject my agenda at the outset. I’d defend it by insisting that the vast majority of Americans, whatever their views on any of these vexing subjects, want to get to certain basics first. They know the social issues won’t go away.

Conservatives might rebel against the way I frame our objectives. In talking about the budget, I do not even bring up reducing taxes. That is because I think the evidence shows that if we are serious about balancing the budget, government needs more revenue. The brute facts of (1) the steady rise in the costs of health care and (2) the aging of the baby boomers mean that we can’t just hack our way to a balanced budget without eviscerating programs such as Medicare and Social Security that most Americans want.