Should Republicans put forth Simpson-Bowles for the fiscal cliff?

posted at 7:19 pm on November 30, 2012 by Mary Katharine Ham

My friend Guy Benson and I were talking about this idea the other night, and I liked it when compared to all our other dismal options. It was also the same night we saw “Lincoln,” so I wondered if we were high on celluloid optimism about what’s possible in politics.

But Guy fleshed out the idea in this must-read post today, and I think he’s onto something. You should go over there to read the whole thing, but here’s the gist:

Of the commission’s 18 members, six Democrats and five Republicans endorsed the final document, while the seven ‘no’ votes split four-to-three along Left/Right ideological lines. Paul Ryan was the most prominent opponent of the plan. The eleven-member ‘yes’ camp was ideologically diverse, ranging from Sen. Tom Coburn on the right to Sen. Dick Durbin on the left. Like many conservatives, I continue to harbor significant concerns about various elements of the plan. I’m troubled by some of the tax provisions, especially the revenue cap at 21 percent of GDP (far higher than the historical average of 18 percent). The defense cuts are also worrisome, as is the fact that despite some cuts and tinkering, Medicare — the largest long-term driver of our debt — escapes a desperately needed overhaul. The framework also assumes the retention of Obamacare, which Paul Ryan has cited as a primary cause of his ‘no’ vote. But here is today’s reality: (1) Unhappy tax news is coming, one way or the other. The president is not budging. (2) The fall election guaranteed that Obamacare is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. (3) Sequestration’s defense cuts would be even more punishing and abrupt than Simpson/Bowles reductions. (4) Democrats have shown themselves to be totally unserious about any reforms or reductions to entitlements. In short, even if the major players manage to hammer out an eleventh-hour deal before January 1, it’s probably going to reek. It will have been negotiated in secret, and will almost certainly be jammed through in a rushed and unsavory fashion. This is no way to govern.

Simpson-Bowles, for all its faults, was conducted in an open and transparent manner and brought disparate political players into a room to forge a serious compromise. It overhauls and streamlines our byzantine tax code, takes some important first steps on entitlements, and reduces and caps federal spending. On substance, I’d wager that it would be considerably better than anything Obama and Boehner might produce after weeks of behind-closed-doors acrimony with the proverbial gun to their heads. Politically, it paints Democrats into a tough corner. Republicans could make a grand show of reluctantly supporting Simpson-Bowles for the betterment of the country. Ideally, the press conference would be led by Paul Ryan, who might explain why he voted against the plan as a commissioner, but is now willing to set aside some of his strong ideological preferences to move the nation forward. They would remind viewers that the proposal they’re now backing only exists because President Obama specifically and publicly asked for it. Plus, more Democrats than Republicans voted for it, including Harry Reid’s top lieutenant in the Senate. Put simply, Simpson-Bowles represents the very embodiment of bipartisan collaboration and problem solving — precisely the sort of thing “moderates,” the media, and the public are always demanding. It would be exceedingly difficult for Democrats to paint the plan as radical or draconian in light of the commission’s origins and participants. The GOP’s “party of no” problem would also be hugely diminished; after all, they would have just signed on to the president’s commission, with the previously recalcitrant Paul Ryan magnanimously leading the way. It would be fascinating to watch the president and his allies try to denounce and reject the very proposal he called for.

There are things I don’t like about Simpson-Bowles, though I’ve never been a hater. I think the country would have benefited if President Obama had ever shown enough leadership to address some of its recommendations, and said so on “The O’Reilly Factor” in January 2011. Despite its faults, it comes closer to reckoning with our real problems than Obama ever has. There are other plans I would like more than Simpson-Bowles. But here’s the thing. Simpson-Bowles is far more responsible than what President Obama is currently offering and probably far better than a slapped together grand bargain made by Obama and Speaker Boehner behind closed doors as a deadline closes in. It was created in a more transparent process, and though it certainly focuses more on revenues vs. spending than I’d like, it gives Republicans some of the trade-offs they’re hoping for in a deal with Obama— some simplification of the tax code, some entitlement reform, a cap on spending as a percentage of GDP.

It is also a fully formed plan with on-the-record bipartisan support and near-universal acceptance as “reasonable” and “sober” by the media and Beltway types. A lot of that is lip service from folks who felt rather certain the plan would never be seriously considered, but it still makes it hard to frame Republicans as obstinate obstructionists when they offer up the plan of none other than Mssrs. Simpson and Bowles. On the other hand, liberals hate it. Paul Krugman:

So, a public service reminder: Simpson-Bowles is terrible. It mucks around with taxes, but is obsessed with lowering marginal rates despite a complete absence of evidence that this is important. It offers nothing on Medicare that isn’t already in the Affordable Care Act. And it raises the Social Security retirement age because life expectancy has risen — completely ignoring the fact that life expectancy has only gone up for the well-off and well-educated, while stagnating or even declining among the people who need the program most.

Cue the Democratic infighting. The president has been avoiding this plan like the plague since his own commission finished it, but it is still his commission. Rejecting it out of hand to allow liberals to continue living in debt denial might be a move so irresponsible as to make even the press notice. Republicans would demonstrate they know the calculus in Washington has changed, but that doesn’t mean they must make a flagrantly irresponsible deal when a more responsible one is available.

This idea got a good reception in the Greenroom, when I half-expected it to get torched, which seems to me an indicator that all-important conservative constituents might not be as opposed to something like this as Republican leaders might think they are. But have at it in the comments, here. I’m anxious to see what y’all think.

In the end, it does seem a more philosophically palatable way to change the course of a very bad political situation. And, in the end, the part that’s really important— I think it’d genuinely be better for the country if something like Simpson-Bowles were to pass instead of us going over the cliff or adopting some terrible deal. Worth a thought.

Exit question (Allahpundit™): Who foretold this? Why, Ed Morrissey, of course.

And, read this great, comprehensive Allahpundit post for a flashback to reaction as Simpson-Bowles was first announced. Pelosi: “Unacceptable.”

Update: In addition to general concerns about the contents of Simpson-Bowles, I should add the very reasonable worry some have voiced in comments at the Greenroom, which is that if you make Simpson-Bowles your opening offer, it just turns into a worse Simpson-Bowles by the time a deal is final. Yep, worries me too. But I think Republicans would certainly be on much more solid negotiating ground touting this plan and saying they’ve done lots of compromising than where they stand now. Thoughts?

Update: Food for thought for the “let it burn” crowd, of which my id is intermittently a member. Howard Dean is, too, because it gives him everything he wants. Yikes.

Update: Please also read Randall Hoven, who did a good, detailed write-up of this idea earlier this week. I had not seen it until it was mentioned in comments, or I would have linked it above.

As it is, Obama can wash his hands of it, saying even the commission itself did not pass it. But if it passes, Obama must own it. If Republican congressmen Paul Ryan, Jeb Hensarling, and Dave Camp would switch their votes, it would be enough to pass that hot potato to the Democrats. They should say, “the people spoke on November 6″ and that they listened to the voice of the American people telling us all to work together, yadda yadda. Then let the Democrats own what comes after.

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