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If we scorn the scorn, we might get somewhere

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Illustration / Heather McKinnon / Seattle Times / Newscom / File

(Read caption) Of course, Washington is not used to compromise where there is mutual sacrifice; negotiations in this town tend to follow the “mutual grabs” model instead. But temper tantrums from both sides of the aisle won't bring us closer to a fiscal policy that works.

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First, this is not a post about “sibling rivalry.” Not the usual kind at least…

A front-page story in today’s New York Times by Jackie Calmes carries the (on-line) title “Deficit Reduction Plan Draws Scorn From Left and Right.” Jackie explains the basic parameters of the dual scorning (emphasis added):

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By putting deep spending cuts and substantial tax increases on the table, President Obama’s bipartisan debt-reduction commission has exposed fissures in both parties, underscoring the volatile nature and long odds of any attempt to address the nation’s long-term budget problems.

Among Democrats, liberals are in near revolt against the White House over the issue, even as substantive and political forces push Mr. Obama to attack chronic deficits in a serious way. At the same time, Republicans face intense pressure from their conservative base and the Tea Party movement to reject any deal that includes tax increases, leaving their leaders with little room to maneuver in any negotiation and at risk of being blamed by voters for not doing their part…

“The only way to make those tough choices historically has been if both parties are willing to move forward together,” [President Obama] said at a news conference in Seoul, South Korea. “And so before anybody starts shooting down proposals, I think we need to listen, we need to gather up all the facts. I think we have to be straight with the American people.”…

Mr. Obama’s stance was…a response to the outcry from both conservatives against taxes and from Mr. Obama’s liberal base against the plan’s proposed long-term cuts in domestic programs across the board, including Social Security and Medicare.

The scorn coming from both sides doesn’t mean the commission is doomed to fail its purpose. Some who praise the co-chairs’ report (including several of you readers) have suggested that the fact that both extremes are having temper tantrums about the centrist proposals is a good sign that these are reasonable policies representing a compromise position–one where taxes (revenues but not necessarily rates) come up and spending (but not necessarily benefits to low-income households) comes down. Of course, Washington is not used to compromise where there is mutual sacrifice; negotiations in this town tend to follow the “mutual grabs” model instead. Some who agree on these centrist policy proposals nevertheless are now down on prospects for the commission’s success, arguing that the commission will not do any good if it doesn’t lay down the political strategy and process needed to put these proposals into law–i.e., if it doesn’t explain how to bring the policymakers on the two extremes to the center.

But I think it’s not the commission’s main purpose to see their proposals through to enactment. Sure, officially they had a goal of getting consensus (14 of 18 votes) for a comprehensive and specific set of proposals to close the fiscal gap, proposals that would then be taken up by Congress and enacted. But all along my greatest hope for the President’s fiscal commission (and the Bipartisan Policy Center’s debt reduction task force as well) was that they would consider and deliberate on the full variety of real and tough policy choices required to make progress on fiscal sustainability–in as open and transparent a manner possible–and I think the release of the commission co-chairs’ report alone decently succeeded in that.

It’s incredibly helpful to have these expert groups lay out these specifically-tough policy choices to the American people in the credible and respectful way that I think they have done so far. It shines a light on the real and necessary choices we’ll have to make as a nation. This may start to make sense to most of us as the beginning of a reasonable and constructive discussion about turning our fiscal situation and economy around. We can debate, respectfully, about the particular tradeoffs we’re willing to make; some of us might prefer to see taxes come up more or differently, and some of us might prefer a different mix of spending cuts. But if politicians at the extremes react by continuing to “just say no” and engaging in the same old ideological, partisan sniping at each other (what I think of as “attack and cower” mode), we citizens might now be inclined to roll our eyes at it–in a variety of ways, some of which might get those politicians to snap out of their bad behavior.

In effect, we have to let the politicians know: “This is not what we elected you to do! You are the ‘policymakers.’ You are supposed to be making policy.

So if we can “scorn the scorn,” I think we will be getting somewhere.

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