Thursday, April 26, 2012

Pulping the bully approach to presidential leadership, cont.

Not for the first time, Ezra Klein laments the Obama administration's loss of control over the deficit debate from early 2011 to the present:

The problem the White House has on the deficits issue is that their coolness towards Simpson-Bowles lost them a lot of credibility on this issue. Most Americans may not know what they want to do about the deficit. But they tend to know they want to do something. And Simpson-Bowles, rightly or wrongly, became the symbol for doing something. When the Obama administration didn't follow up on it, and then Ryan and the Republicans were first out the door with a major deficit-reduction plan, it created the sense that, deep down, the White House didn't really want to do anything on deficits, that they were just doing the least necessary to check the box.
It may be true that Obama lost credibility on deficit reduction in 2011. But Klein is omitting a fact he was well aware of at the time: in early 2011, Obama faced a choice. He could "lead" by embracing Bowles-Simpson or some variant, prompting Republicans to excoriate it, and thus setting the stage for competing plans to frame the 2012 election -- or he could "lead" by actually cutting a deal with Republicans, which would require some caginess about his own position. That's because, as Klein is well aware and as Obama himself openly avowed, presidential advocacy polarizes.

In hindsight, it can be strongly argued that Obama was wrong to go for a comprehensive deficit reduction deal in earnest in 2011.  As someone pointed out in late 2010, global tax reform/spending deals generally take 2-3 years to ripen. My own feeling is that Obama's cardinal error was to accept the debt ceiling deadline as a basic negotiating condition. Since the starting premise was finding over $2 trillion in spending cuts over ten years, and Republicans were apparently willing to let the treasury run out of money to pay its debts, the clock was running against him alone.  He was therefore willing to accept a ridiculously paltry amount of new revenue in exchange for those cuts -- and didn't get it.

But I don't really see what Bowles-Simpson has to do with it.  Obama laid out a plan in April 2011, in stark counterpoint to the Ryan plan, which he excoriated in clear terms that delighted liberals including Klein. He actually laid this gauntlet down at an earlier stage than Bill Clinton did in his budget battle with the Gingrich Congress: Clinton offered a 10-year deficit reduction plan in counterpoint to the GOP's seven-year plan in June 1995. The Obama plan's swift evaporation from public consciousness had less to do, I suspect, with its level of detail than with Obama's attempt to negotiate a deal before the debt ceiling was reached in August -- a horrendous deal, with about 40% of the new revenue called for in Bowles-Simpson. Clinton, in contrast, used his plan as a baseline for counterattack throughout the government shutdown battles, and didn't strike a comprehensive deal until August 1997, nine months after his decisive reelection.

Clinton, it's true, faced what now looks like a mere prototype of Republican extremism circa 2011.  It was relatively easy for him to face down a debt ceiling threat in November 1995, because nobody believed the GOP would actually fail to raise the ceiling.  Obama may have had to go the 14th Amendment route if he had called early, often and unequivocally for a clean debt ceiling raise.  But that, I believe, would have been a fight worth having.

In any case, the final chapter has yet to be written.  Republicans may (incredibly, inconsistently) poll better than Democrats on deficit reduction, but Democrats poll better on tax policy. A significant minority of Republicans are still making approving noises about Bowles-Simpson, so in that the sense the debate is to the left of where it would have been if Obama had embraced it. Obama has the enormous leverage of the pending expiration of the Bush tax cuts, plus the defense cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act, which begin in 2013 if they're not preempted by an agreement this year. 

As far as impediments go, there's just the little matter of reelection.

As far as credibility goes, I suppose Klein's argument is that a) Bowles-Simpson was far more detailed than Obama's deficit reduction outlines of April and October 2011, and b) Bowles-Simpson had a bipartisan imprimatur, so embracing it would position Obama more firmly in the center in the public mind (substantively, he is very much in the center).  Perhaps that's true, too. But if Obama wins reelection, having maintained some distance from Bowles-Simpson may help, rather than hinder, in the forging of a comprehensive deal.

1 comment:

  1. not to mention, there *was* no Simpson-Bowles. It was just a bunch of failed work product gussied up by the failed chairs to paper over their failed commission. Why on earth should we have expected the president to fully, officially embrace something virtually no one in his party would touch without real Republican buy-in? The "bipartisan" talk was just the same gang of goobers crap that had nearly killed health-care reform.

    Who voted NO on Simpson-Bowles? Ryan, Hensarling, and Camp--the entire GOP House delegation. GOP for? Coburn, Gregg, and Crapo. Totally inspires confidence. It failed so miserably there was no salvageable upside for the president.

    The thing is, they should have been prepared for that outcome, and been ready with *something* that could drive the conversation, and the process. Instead we had the lame duck fights (which didn't go too badly), but nothing else till Spring. The administration's worst trait is that they fail to even attempt to control the debate.