The politics of spinach

     

    That bellowing sound you hear is the scream of pain from sacred cows.

    The co-chairmen of President Obama’s bipartisan deficit reduction commission really stepped in it yesterday, big time, when they publicly insisted that the spreading red ink on the federal ledger will never get cleaned up unless both parties, and the entrenched special interests in polarized Washington, all agree to share the necessary sacrifices. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful world? Good luck with that one, guys.

    It’s a darn good thing that Erskine Bowles (centrist North Carolina Democrat, former Bill Clinton chief of staff) and Alan Simpson (former Wyoming Republican senator who actually believed in working with Democrats) have no future designs on running for elective office, because the specific ideas they floated yesterday, in the name of restoring fiscal discipline, would be sufficient ammo for any opponent. Seriously, the 30-second TV attack ads would write themselves:

    Bowles wants to hike your taxes at the gas pump! Simpson wants to gut seniors on Social Security! Bowles wants to raise taxes on middle-class homeowners! Simpson wants to throw people off Medicaid! Bowles thinks that you should have fewer tax breaks! Simpson wants to make America less safe! Bowles wants to raise the Social Security payroll tax on hardworking Americans! Simpson wants to protect ObamaCare!

    And no wonder, because Bowles and Simpson have dared to defy both partisan camps. In their bid to slash the annual projected deficits and accumulating long-term debt, by finding $4 trillion in savings over 10 years, they are essentially signaling that everyone will have to eat some spinach. They’re arguing that the Republicans (and their ideological group allies) need to give up their fantasy that the federal books can be balanced solely through massive spending cuts; and that the Democrats (and their allies) need to give up their fantasy that the safety net shall remain forever inviolate.

    It’s at least nice, for a change, to get some fresh thinking outside the box. Their aim is to get $2 in spending cuts for every $1 in revenue increases, via an intricate mix of policy changes that would include: slowly raising the retirement age for full Social Security benefits to 69; hiking the federal gasoline tax by another 15 cents over the next five years; cutting defense weapons procurement by 15 percent, and raising the government health care premiums of military retirees; a repeal or modification of key tax breaks, including the deductibility of mortgage interest payments, coupled with reforms that would lower the income tax rates; hitting up affluent earners for Social Security payroll taxes; tying Medicaid payments to income levels…you get the idea.

    Cue the inevitable backlash bellowing on the left and right:

    The AFL-CIO says that Bowles and Simpson “just told working Americans, to drop dead.” Conservative leader Grover Norquist condemns their ideas as “merely an excuse to raise net taxes on the American people.” MoveOn.org says that any reduction in entitlement programs is “just plain wrong.” The right-leaning Heritage Foundation think tank says that the proposed military cuts “would make America less safe and are thus completely irresponsible.” The left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research says, “This is not ‘eat your spinach,’ it is ‘eat your arsenic.'” A former Bush budget official laments on the National Review website that Bowles and Simpson have failed to condemn the health reform law, and indeed “would leave in place the entire trillion-dollar monstrosity.”

    Undoubtedly, the Bowles-Simpson is imperfect in various respects, but we should at least find it refreshing that somebody has made a concerted effort to breach the Washington paralysis. If all the usual suspects can stop jerking their knees, perhaps these proposals can become grist for a serious push toward common ground. There’s even a self-interest argument: If the necessary pain is shared by both sides, then everybody gets some political cover.

    The current president, and his predecessor, both voiced a desire to change the tone of Washington, and the ways that Washington conducts its business. Starting in January, both parties will share responsibility for that conduct. At the risk of sounding like Voltaire’s Candide, who pined for “the best of all possible worlds, I’ll merely suggest that these new eat-your-spinach ideas would provide a template for a fresh start. If not now, when?

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