In February, Republican strategist Karl Rove chastised President Barack Obama for ignoring “his own Bowles-Simpson deficit commission” and making “no effort to reduce the long-term debt burden.” Now Crossroads GPS, the political group for which Rove serves as senior adviser, is running advertisements attacking Democrats who did support Simpson-Bowles. It is an unsurprising but depressing episode of political opportunism — and an apt illustration of why hard things don’t get done in Washington.
One television commercial attacks Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., who is in one of the hard-fought races that could determine which party controls the Senate for the next two years. People like Hagan want to balance the budget “on our backs,” the ad warns, by supporting a “controversial plan” that would raise the retirement age, reduce the home mortgage deduction and increase out-of-pocket Medicare expenses.
Sounds terrible, right? But, as Simpson-Bowles (formally, the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform) pointed out during Obama’s first term, those are the kinds of steps necessary to get the U.S. budget into some kind of balance. According to the latest report from the Congressional Budget Office, the nation remains on track to build up larger and larger debt. Three categories of automatic spending — health care, Social Security and interest payments — account for 85 percent of projected budget growth between now and 2024. Without some reform, there will be less funding available for defense, national parks, education, roads, research and everything else Americans expect their government to do.
The answer is to prudently trim back some of the automatic spending increases. Upper-middle class people don’t need such generous mortgage-interest tax subsidies. They could pay a bit more into Medicare. At a time of increased longevity, white-collar workers could start drawing retirement benefits a year or two later. Most leaders in Washington presumably understand all this. Enough Democrats and Republicans came together on the Simpson-Bowles commission to give some hope that a grand bargain could be achieved.
When those hopes proved fruitless, many people blamed Obama. “If the president had embraced Simpson-Bowles and worked to pass its recommendations, he would have been handsomely rewarded,” Rove argued in the Wall Street Journal. “Instead he opted for partisan stalemate and acrimony.”
Obama and other politicians opted for timidity over responsibility. One reason for their reticence was their fear that a vote for fiscal responsibility could be used against them in 30-second commercials. We don’t doubt that reckless accusations are being flung in both directions in this year’s most contested Senate campaigns. But ads that vilify Hagan, Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas and others for a courageous stand for the national welfare make it all the less likely that politicians will take such chances in the future. They’re a good way to ensure continued “partisan stalemate and acrimony.”