"We — you and I and our government — must avoid the impulse to live only for today." — Dwight D. Eisenhower
Growing up in Ohio, we idolized Robert A. Taft, our U.S. senator for 14 years and long known as "Mr. Republican" for his party loyalty and his conservative, small-government principles.
So we were angry when Dwight D. Eisenhower defeated Taft's bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1952 and was twice elected president.
History shows we were wrong.
At that time, like today, American politics were polarized. But Eisenhower, the supreme Allied commander-turned-pragmatic politician, found a way to persuade the public and Democrats in Congress that military excesses must be capped and that the nation's civil rights, education and transportation needed urgent attention. Decades later, his is still an important message.
In his nationally televised farewell address, he shared his vision: "As we peer into society's future, we — you and I and our government — must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow."
Doesn't that resonate today?
Imagine if our politicians could change their focus from the next election to the next generation. Instead, they're captives of today. Short-termers, for example, celebrated the latest federal budget forecasts, namely that the deficit would drop to $642 billion this fiscal year from $1.1 trillion last year.
But that still means we're spending $5 for every $4 we collect in federal taxes. This level of red ink is unsustainable. Let's apply Eisenhower's perspective.
We need to start by deciding what we want our government to do, then find the means to finance it. That will require rebalancing our spending and the taxes we pay in a way that relies less on selfishness (today) and protects the "precious resources of tomorrow."
This is not a new message. Thomas Jefferson, for example, urged his countrymen to "avoid encroaching on the right of future generations by burdening them with the debts of the past." That translates into corralling the debt burden and investing in declining schools and decaying transportation and power systems that we'll need for tomorrow. Just as important is finding the level of taxation that is appropriate for the level of government we desire.
Our challenge is to balance our short-term desires with future needs. Let's hear it for Eisenhower. He had it right.
Jim Toedtman is the editor of the AARP Bulletin.
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