Simpson-Bowles Will Not Save Us
Responding to the tidal wave of criticism his recent, much-discussed, and epic freak-out inspired, Andrew Sullivan today offered his best distillation thus far of the presidential campaign’s fundamental dynamic
[M]y worry is not just one night – but that Obama hesitated to grasp the center firmly in 2011, and thereby allowed Romney to grab it last Wednesday. That’s a strategic error, which is much more troubling than a tactical loss. And I don’t think a purely negative strategy on Romney’s lies, total make-over, and 47 percent remarks will be enough. Basically, Romney has told us that he wants a Grand Bargain too, but without any new revenue. And unlike Obama, he doesn’t have a foam-flecked bunch of crazies to say no to everything. It’s a form of blackmail – the moderate-seeming liar backed by the furthest of the far right, making a moderate Democratic president impossible. I fear Romney’s shameless abandonment of the first Ryan Medicare plan, refusal to itemize the new deduction revenues to prove he won’t hurt the middle class, and sheer chutzpah has now – incredibly – running [sic] as the centrist, while Obama who has tried manfully to pull off a centrist coalition, is now trapped in a left-of-center place. Maybe that’s enough, if he can rally his base. But maybe it isn’t.
From my point-of-view, this is the best reason offered yet by anyone not to take Sully’s anxiety too seriously. Not in the sense that we should dismiss him as a pundit, but in the sense that we should recognize the assumptions baked into his view of the race are profoundly contestable — and that his yanking the fire alarm doesn’t make sense without them. To boil these assumptions down to their essence: Simpson-Bowles is a political winner. (For those who need a reminder as to what Simpson-Bowles is, voila.)
Andrew has been pushing, hard, for the president to embrace Simpson-Bowles ever since the panel’s recommendations were first announced. For longer still, he’s beseeched Obama to advance a debt and deficit-reduction plan much like what Simpson-Bowles proposes. As circumcision is to his writing on health care, or Pet Shop Boys are to his writing on music, so is Simpson-Bowles to his view of American politics in the years since the financial panic of 2008. It’s not quite his White Whale, because he’s not individually capable of enacting it into law, but it’s something much more than a mere hobbyhorse.
The thing about Simpson-Bowles (S-B), however, is that outside of DC and other enclaves of elite opinion, no one knows what the plan is. Considering S-B advocates cuts to Social Security and Medicare, as well as the reducing the cap on the extremely popular home-mortgage interest deduction, closing sundry loopholes, and reducing spending on the military-industrial complex, it’s fair to say S-B won’t be a favorite of populists in either party. Which shouldn’t surprise us. S-B is austerity; and austerity isn’t popular.
To no small degree, the political toxicity of S-B is part of its appeal for those so inclined. There’s a myth that support of S-B, like support for Paul Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity,” is a mark of fearlessness. It’s what principled leaders, those who know better than the myopic and selfish mob, want to do in order to save America’s fiscal future from its democratic present. The deficit and debt is America’s messy room, and S-B is the stern parent forcing it to clean up and do its chores.
Call me crazy, but I don’t think this is a winning message for a politician in a tight race.
Moreover, in order to think it is, you’ve got to believe that voters — or at least the voters who will decide the election — care primarily about the deficit and debt. But here, too, we find Andrew’s view of the electorate’s priorities to be out-of-sync with the reality. According to an April Pew poll, even independents (who tend to be socially liberal and fiscally conservative) are more concerned with economic and job growth than they are with the deficit.
So here’s the short version: if we indeed were living in a country where voters cared mainly about the deficit and debt, Andrew’s concerns would be better-founded (he’d still be reacting to merely one poll, so I’ll go “better” rather than “well”). Even granting that it’s not all voters we need concern ourselves with but rather those pesky independents who’ll tip the balance in a 50-50 race, it’s still the case that independents are more worried about the economic present than the fiscal future. Andrew isn’t wrong to be concerned; but if you’d a doctor who told you the cure was leeches, wouldn’t you begin to question her diagnosis?