I never thought I’d come to this, but Barack Obama could, if he stands up to his own oft-stated convictions, persuade me to back him in the 2012 election. How? By supporting his own hand-picked Deficit Commission.
While the 24-hour news cycle is wondering whether the Republicans will support a moratorium on earmarks, or whether Nancy Pelosi will face a challenge to her leadership, the real news this week was the release by the co-chairmen of the Commission of their draft proposals. The co-chairs, Erskine Bowles (D) and Alan Simpson (R) were doubly clever in the way they released their report: first, they finessed the larger panel by producing an unofficial report; regardless of whether the final report gets the required 14 out of 18 votes, this will be the one that sets the marker for the debate to follow. Secondly, now that the outlines have been established, the pressure is on to deal with it as it’s been laid out, rather than take a more timid, incremental, DC-style approach.
The proposal is radical. It gores most of the sacred cows in Washington – as Simpson said, “we harpooned all of the whales in the ocean, and some of the minnows too.” It is also virtually verbatim taken from the conservative playbook, which is why it is so remarkable that it comes from a commission that, while bipartisan, was assembled by the most liberal president we have had in decades.
Just look at the opening statement of principles. It says that ordinary Americans have been making tough choices in their own lives these least two years, and expect their government to do the same. What a welcome breath of reality!
It focuses on spending cuts in every department – 75% of the deficit reduction comes from spending restraint. It targets entitlement spending, bravely grasping the third rail. Encouragingly, it demands productivity increases of 3% per year (although how one measures that, I’m not sure). And it calls for persistent attention at the highest level to make sure long-term spending targets remain in focus, so this doesn’t become a one-season bit of excitement, to be buried under the mudslides of future legislation.
The proposal does anticipate higher tax revenue, but it goes for it in the most favorable way: by lowering rates and broadening the tax base. The corporate tax is lowered; the income tax is simplified – one choice on the table has a top rate of 23% and no deductions at all.
It is not without its faults from the conservative’s point of view – for example, it calls for revenue and spending to come into balance at about 21% of GDP, which is high. Historically, tax revenue has averaged around 18%, and ratifying spending at a higher level is a concession to larger government that we will rightly dispute.
But so much of this is what we conservatives have been saying for years, that it’s heady stuff to think that the pursuit of this plan will characterize the next two years of the Obama administration. After all, he says repeatedly that the deficit we currently have is unsustainable. If he’s not going to tackle it by pursuing the recommendations of his own commission, how’s he going to do it?
OK, that last bit might be just a little bit of self-indulgent pseudo-logic. There is a long and illustrious history of presidents ignoring the reports of blue ribbon commissions that took their instructions but then went ahead and reached their own conclusions. The most recent example was when George W. Bush ignored the report of the Baker Commission on Iraq strategy (and thank God he did, because they recommended a dignified retreat, and by doubling down with the surge, Bush saved the situation).
So it’s probably wishful thinking to suppose that Obama will offer a full-throated endorsement of these findings. Certainly the voices of liberal Washington have risen in protest – Nancy Pelosi called it “simply unacceptable” and Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO, trotted out dire images – the co-chairs, he said, “told working Americans to ‘drop dead.’” It’s a cert that these policy proposals will not be waved through Congress.
In fact, it is not encouraging that the White House is making such a big deal out of whether to extend the Bush tax cuts for the top income brackets. If they thought serious tax code reform was on the table in the next Congress, why would they spend any political capital dealing with an issue that is likely to be superseded in the near future? Not a good sign.
Thinking logically, of course, it will be very difficult for Obama to support these proposals. As we have seen, on the face of it, they enrage his liberal base. The spending cuts occur in all the wrong places; the tax revenue increases don’t come nearly as much from tapping the rich.
Given how disappointed his base is already with his performance – no public option, no cap and trade, Gitmo still open, DADT still in force, and now it even looks like July 2011 will not mark a big change in Afghanistan – they will abandon him like the proverbial vermin from a ship if he breaks faith and pushes for anything like these proposals.
One can hope, though. Oddly, as I read these proposals, I couldn’t help thinking this might be a kind of Rahm Emanuel redux – after all, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.