Through most of the raise the debt ceiling debate I have been relentlessly critical of Republicans. They deserve harsh criticism for their conduct and false policy prescriptions. Their willful ignorance of real numbers, their false description of the potential outcomes of the policies they advocate, and the willingness to substitute sloganeering for real governing should bring them the criticism they so richly deserve. But what of the Democrats? Have they covered themselves in glory by being the anti-Republicans? How has the President performed? As a Democrat I think that they have performed poorly, and to say so is only to say the obvious.
What is the problem with the Democratic approach, and is there any merit to the criticisms made of the Democrats by the Republicans? The main talking point put forth by Republicans has been the lack of a “Democratic plan”. As the debt ceiling negotiations unfolded I agreed with the President that he should not commit his potential compromises to paper, since without an agreed framework the Republicans would simply take any concessions (on Medicare for example) and use them to politically insulate themselves from Democratic attacks as well as pushing the negotiations further in their direction. No framework, no paper. Where the Republican attacks have merit is on the lack of a Democratic budget (having Obama’s submission defeated 97-0 did not help) as well as a deficit reduction plan that people could take seriously. The Republicans put forth Ryan, and for all of its flaws it put down a marker. Where is the Democratic alternative, and the leadership needed to drive home Bowles-Simpson, or some more acceptable alternative? Where was the attempt to take the Gang of Six framework, and make it a vehicle that achieves things most sane people believe we need? What do we need? A credible deficit reduction package that recognizes, as Bowles-Simpson does, that you cannot begin austerity in year one, but must build into it. The Democrats are rightfully clamoring for tax code changes that would straighten out some of the inequities that exist, but does anybody take seriously the idea that every time a potential spending reduction is broached that Democrats answer that we should raise the rates on top earners to solve the problem? You can only spend that pot of money once, and it is a limited pot of money at that. Raising the top rates to Clinton/Reagan levels WILL NOT, solve our budget problems. What it would do is to show that all the pain in any restructuring would not be borne entirely by SS/Medicare/Medicaid recipients. What is needed, in my view, is a revamping of the tax code to produce additional revenue while lowering marginal rates. Simplification should be in the interests of all, Democrats and Republicans alike. Additional revenue attractive to Democrats, with marginal rate reductions very attractive to Republicans. That deal is available to Democrats, but it would require some risk taking and spending of capital. Has not happened.
A serious discussion on entitlements will necessarily involve some modifications that may be unpalatable on their face to Democrats. But to simply say that no problem exists, or to say no to any potential adjustments, (as they did to the relatively benign Simpson-Bowles recommendations) is to deny reality and to cede ground to Republicans. We must get serious, and if there is a set of Democratic policy prescriptions for deficit reduction, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security then maybe we should say what they are.
The last word is that Democrats would likely point to Republican antics on health care, and maybe say “why get serious when the Republicans are not at all interested in real solutions”? They would have a valid point. The treatment of the Obama health care plan, the Republican refusal to say how they would cover the uninsured, the Republican refusal to say what THEY ARE FOR, has served as the template for the Democratic response on entitlements. Despite that I believe that the Democrats have to stand for something on the deficit/entitlement debate. So far the debate is being carried by the Republicans, who stand for something. I believe the President is absolutely right when he says we need a “balanced approach” to deficit reduction. It is the only way forward that makes sense. But eventually details do matter. It is time for the Democrats to fill in the blanks.