Is Simpson-Bowles A Political Winner?

Andrew Sullivan —  Oct 10 2012 @ 4:40pm

I've argued repeatedly that Obama's failure to embrace Simpson-Bowles wasn't merely a policy error but a political error. In response, Elias Isquith argues that Simpson-Bowles isn't politically popular:

The thing about Simpson-Bowles (S-B) … is that outside of DC and other enclaves of elite opinion, no one knows what the plan is. Considering S-B advocates cuts to Social Security and Medicare, as well as the reducing the cap on the extremely popular home-mortgage interest deduction, closing sundry loopholes, and reducing spending on the military-industrial complex, it’s fair to say S-B won’t be a favorite of populists in either party. Which shouldn’t surprise us. S-B is austerity; and austerity isn’t popular.

To no small degree, the political toxicity of S-B is part of its appeal for those so inclined. There’s a myth that support of S-B, like support for Paul Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity,” is a mark of fearlessness. It’s what principled leaders, those who know better than the myopic and selfish mob, want to do in order to save America’s fiscal future from its democratic present. The deficit and debt is America’s messy room, and S-B is the stern parent forcing it to clean up and do its chores.

Call me crazy, but I don’t think this is a winning message for a politician in a tight race.

Kevin Drum made a similar argument in response to my latest cover story:

Do Americans really want Bowles-Simpson? I guess anything's possible, but if something like this passes it will most likely be in spite of the American public, not because of it. I know that "compromise" sounds great, and lots of Americans say they're in favor of it, but when push comes to shove what that usually means is that they think the other guys should compromise. The tax jihadists still won't want tax increases and the interest groups still won't want spending cuts and old people will still fight Medicare and Social Security reform to their dying breath. It's not impossible for some kind of Bowles-Simpson-ish thing to happen, but the truth is that it will almost certainly be unpopular. Politicians will have to drag the public into it, not the other way around.

I don't disagree that it's politically very hard. But it needn't mean immediate austerity. That's what will happen if we don't get a Grand Bargain this year and the sequester and the sunsetting of the Bush tax cuts kick in. You could sweeten the long-term pill with a short-term stimulus; and a real bipartisan deal in the face of unsustainable debt burden would reassure the wealth-creators and investors.

The point with such a tough package is getting both sides to agree on it – which means getting the Democratic left (like Chuck Schumer) and the Republican right (like Paul Ryan) to buy in as an act of patriotism. But Ryan killed the S-B commission with his veto. Obama then walked away. Romney is now saying he's for it in principle but opposes almost all of its key provisions, especially on defense and revenues. I think it is simply a matter of time before we have to do something like it – or be so indebted we end up like Greece. But we still have time. A president should be able to rally both parties to the cause. The only hope was a decisive Obama win, tilting the balance toward some Republican compromise. Obama just made that a lot harder.