The Presidential Deficit Commission has issued its report — sort of — and the president has a problem. Like Dr. Frankenstein in the Mary Shelley novel, he built a creature from discarded parts and it took on a life of its own. And like its fictional counterpart, this creature is threatening to destroy its creator.
The Deficit Commission’s defenders like to say they’re the only ones willing to make “tough choices.” The president has a very tough choice in front of him. He can either confront this proposal head-on, or he can embrace it and ensure great losses for himself and his party for years to come. It will be hard to find any other way forward.
The Commission’s ideas are unpopular, unnecessary, and fail to address the true causes of government deficits. But resisting them, as hard as that will be, is only half of the president’s self-created problem. This report is also going to make it harder to accomplish the things that are most needed if we are to turn the economy around. The job situation is dismal and the employment news today was even worse than expected. Only 39,000 new jobs were created last month, instead of the expected 150,000. Even that larger number wouldn’t have been enough to reduce unemployment in the next several years. The official unemployment number rose to 9.8 percent — and that leaves millions of people uncounted.
The Deficit Commission’s budget cuts would start in 2013. At this rate, the jobs picture will still be bleak. Worse, the deficit report has fueled the austerity mania that’s now seized Washington. In his measured response to the Commission’s report, the president rightly said that “jobs and growth are our most urgent need.” But it will be hard to meet that urgent need when this Commission has made budget-slashing the new political fashion.
The president’s creation has already turned on him. Co-chair Erskine Bowles taunted the president last week. “I told people in the White House I had spent more time listening to people in the opposition party than they had done as a whole group,” chided Bowles. And he’s the Democrat. Alan Simpson, his Republican partner, played monster by gloating about “blood baths” and “red meat” in Congress.
“I can’t wait for the blood bath in April,” said Simpson, ” We’ve got guys who will not approve the debt limit extension unless we give ‘em a piece of meat, red meat, off of this package… And boy the bloodbath will be extraordinary.” Sounds like Boris Karloff getting ready to raid a Bavarian village.
Simpson and Bowles, both radical ideologues on the subject of deficits, threw away the rulebook and dared the White House to defy them. They ignored the guidelines the president set for them in the Executive Order appointing them. They didn’t meet their deadline and issued a report without achieving the number of votes required. In fact, as Talking Points Memo reports, they slipped out of town without even holding a public vote (after canceling Tuesday’s planned public debate).
That didn’t stop them from issuing those “blood bath” threats if the president and his party dare to deviate from their mandate.
The “No Alternative” Dodge
The report’s rightward ideological tilt led all three GOP Senators on the Commission to vote “yes.” Republican Rep. Paul Ryan voted “no,” but only because the proposal didn’t also gut this year’s health reform bill. And the Democrats who voted in favor of it offered only weak justifications. “I would agree with what the president said,” said Sen. Kent Conrad. “Instead of shooting this down, propose an alternative — but one that does as good a job as this one does in getting us back on a sound fiscal course.”
And if these four proposals aren’t enough — from the Citizens’ Commission On Jobs, Deficits, and Our Economic Future, EPI/Demos, and Deficit Commissions members Rep. Jan Schakowsky and Andy Stern — here’s Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz explaining the fundamental problems with the Commission’s entire proposal — problems that are addressed by each of the four alternatives we just mentioned.
Some Democrats indulged themselves in the stale stratagem of demonizing their own base. Sen. Dick Durbin’s comment was typical in that regard: “I’m going to say something now that is heretical on the left and they won’t like me for saying it, but what you have suggested in increasing the Social Security retirement age is acceptable to me.”
That’s the favored theme among journalists and politicians who support this plan: Its opponents are “the left,” and therefore to be marginalized and taunted whenever it’s convenient. But are seven out of 10 Americans, including 76 percent of Tea Party members, part of “the left”? 69 percent of the public opposes raising the retirement age and 67 percent would rather raise taxes on the rich instead.
If seven out of 10 Americans belong to “the left,” we must be in Cuba.
The Commission’s co-chairs’ comments last week weren’t random attacks. They were a threat to hold the president hostage if he didn’t accept their proposals. They just got help from 14 Democratic Senators who wrote to Harry Reid, asking that the plan be brought to the floor of the Senate for a vote.
These Senators are usually described as “centrists,” and they played that card in their letter, emphasizing the “strong bipartisan support” behind these recommendations. (Only in Washington can the word “bipartisan” be used to describe proposals that are opposed by most Democrats and most Republicans.)
The momentum for austerity builds with every day that the president fails to take a clear stand. As that momentum builds, the president’s ability to create jobs and help the economy grows weaker. And if the economy doesn’t get better, his electoral prospects and those of his party get dimmer and dimmer.
The End of the World
There will be those who shower the Democrats with praise when they take these positions. There will be people who agree that this is the “adult” thing to do, that they’re making “tough choices,” and that they’ve “stood up to the special interests.” Those people will be delighted with the policies in this proposal. There’s a word for people like that:
They won’t vote for Democrats, but they’ll praise them for pushing right-wing policies. The president will receive more left-handed compliments like this one in the conservative National Review, praising him for “growing up fast” and abandoning “high-minded adolescence.” Or this one from self-described “postpartisan” Ruth Marcus, writing for the austerity-mad Washington Post, calling this “a time to govern.” (“Govern,” like “adult talk” or “tough choices,” has become a euphemism for going along with the new Washington consensus.)
But that’s not likely to offer much comfort in 2012. That may not be the year the world ends, as the New Age books say. But it could be the year the presidency ends for Obama. His base stayed home in 2010, and these policies will ensure it stays home in 2012, too. What’s more, seniors will turn on him and his party in droves, while poll data shows that persuadable Republicans and independents will also be put off by cuts to Social Security.
The Last Chapter
The Deficit Commission was President Obama’s attempt to cobble together a popular policy from the body parts of Republican and right-wing Democratic ideas. That can work sometimes, but in this case the result was monstrous. This proposal is a blend of center-right and far-right ideas that fails to address the fundamental problem driving both the economy and political reality today: jobs.
The word “monster” is derived from the Latin word for “warning” or “omen.” Its other ancient meaning was “unnatural” or “unreal.” This Commission has become the president’s monster, an omen of political disaster whose recommendations are economically unreal.
The President’s best hope is to reject it and embrace counter-proposals that both reduce the deficit and put America back to work. It won’t be easy for him to resist his own creation. But if he doesn’t, polls show that they’ll react to this set of proposals the way they always react to a monster:
They’ll scream and run away.