• Marc Johnson

Nary a Word

Former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson has one message in his post-Senate life as a truth teller about the nation’s fiscal health. Simpson is preaching the gospel of budget and tax reform to anyone who will listen. Unfortunately the candidates for President of the United States, the men who will have to deal with the great unspoken issue of this election, the looming fiscal crisis, cannot seem to summon the political courage to level with the voters and talk as candidly as Al Simpson does about the stark choices facing the next president and the next Congress.

We’re left with Al Simpson and thank God we have him.

Simpson, as funny as he is pithy, complained in 2011 interview about the younger generation. “Grandchildren now don’t write a thank you for the Christmas presents,” he said. “They are walking on their pants with their cap on backward, listening to the Enema Man and Snoopy, Snoopy Poop Dog.” Funny stuff, but even more importantly, Simpson is speaking truth about the fiscal mess in America and the lack of political will to take it on.

“You can’t cut spending your way out of this hole,” Simpson, who was appointed as co-chair of President Obama’s Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform in 2010, said. “You can’t grow your way out of this hole, and you can’t tax your way out of this hole. So put that in your pipe and smoke it, we tell these people. This is madness.”

The famously outspoken Simpson knows what needs to be done to get the nation’s fiscal house in order – everything. Raise taxes and reform the tax code, address entitlements, including Medicare and Social Security, cut defense spending and much else in the federal budget. The debt, fiscal, tax and budget problems are so profound and the medicine to fix the problems so Castor oil-like that only old fashioned political compromise – bipartisan compromise – can make it go down with the American public. Democrats will have to come to the party ready to get serious about Medicare and their pet programs. Republicans have to put on the shelf their time-tested mantra of tax cuts as the solution for every economic problem and address a defense budget bloated by two wars and the world-wide deployment of Americans on a scale that rivals the one-time British Empire. Everyone has to give – and soon.

As I have written in this space in the past, President Obama had his statesmanship moment on fiscal and budget policy some time back and he chose to punt. The politics of embracing the recommendations laid out by Simpson and his fiscal commission co-chair Erskine Bowles must have seemed too risky. Obama’s decision was both shortsighted and ultimately politically inept. Had he embraced the recommendations and spent the last few months campaigning on that basis he would have both a forward-looking message about the economy and, should he win re-election, a real mandate to do something with the debt and taxes. Instead we are left with a virtually insignificant fight between Obama’s plan to raise taxes on the  wealthiest Americans and Mitt Romney’s plan to further cut taxes in the face of mounting budget deficits. Romney says he would also cut federal spending, but beyond virtually insignificant cuts to tiny, ideologically-driven items like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, he won’t get specific. (By the way, the combined budgets of CPB and the endowments would hardly cover a few hours of interest on the national debt.) Romney’s lack of specifics shows, as does the president’s fiscal posture, both a lack of policy seriousness and political courage.

Here is what’s at stake post-November. Because of the failure earlier this year by Congress, which deserves most of the blame, and the president to reach any kind of an accommodation on spending cuts and revenue increases automatic budget cuts will go into effect at the end of the year and Bush-era tax cuts, already extended by Obama, will expire. The country will be over the fiscal cliff you’ve been hearing about. The nation’s credit rating will be further downgraded and the economy will head back toward recession. I’m betting most Americans, be they Tea Partiers or far left progressives, don’t understand the extent of the mess that the next president will face. How could they when the two men contending to lead the country say nary a word about the problem.

So, to be clear, the year end problem will be, and this is no exaggeration, a fiscal crisis on par with the economic melt down in 2008. Fasten your seat belts.

It all could have been avoided – and still could – had a few key political players been more concerned about the future their kids will inherit than the outcome of the next election. Instead of a real debate about the nation’s fiscal future, Romney has relied on demonstrably false claims about Obama destroying the work requirement for Americans on public assistance. Rather than build understanding among confused Americans and create a mandate to govern in his second term, Obama has run a campaign of small ideas and puny aspirations. Neither man seems to have the courage of any convictions about what really has to be done, which brings us back to Al Simpson.

It would be easy to say that the lanky Cody, Wyoming lawyer, out of public office after three terms in the Senate, is a man liberated by not needing to worry about saying unpopular, but true things. But that’s not Simpson. He’s always been willing to shake things up with his candor, which made him the perfect man to join former Clinton Administration Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles as a co-chair of the National Fiscal Commission popularly called Simpson-Bowles. Still, it has taken real political courage for both men – and Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo, who served on the Commission – to call for real sacrifice and real bipartisan agreement about reform. (GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan also served on the Simpson-Bowles Commission and, unlike Crapo, did not back the proposals the Commission developed. Still, Simpson said recently that Ryan knows his stuff and was a serious player on the Commission.)

No serious person in Washington, D.C. would tell you that the nation faces anything but huge and painful choices post-election, but the candidates essentially are ignoring the biggest issue of the year because they have made the political calculation that talking seriously about it is a political loser.

On September 18 in Boise, Al Simpson will receive a new award for political leadership created by The Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University. The award has been created to recognize genuine accomplishment and a commitment to bipartisanship. Simpson deserves that kind of recognition. It’s a shame the two men running for president can’t summon up the same courage and commitment. One of them will have to find some political guts in mid-November. The fiscal cliff the current crowd in Washington created is looming.

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