The thing that may be the most maddening about the current deficit reduction/debt ceiling kabuki dance in Washington, D.C. is that every serious person inside the Beltway knows what must be done. Politics and posturing are, perhaps not surprisingly, ruling where reason should be in charge. At some point soon, a deal must be done and everyone who is a serious D.C. player knows the shape of the agreement. The real task for the President and Congressional Republicans is to manage the process to get to a deal.
Along with a small group of other folks a few months back I participated in an engaging and intense off-the-record visit with a very conservative member of the U.S. Congress. In a matter of minutes the discussion turned to the only real debate in Washington this year – how to control the deficit and bring federal spending in line with revenues. What is the answer the politician asked, I think, with genuine interest in hearing the views of the group. Immediately the answer came: cut spending, particularly on defense, reform entitlements like Medicare and Social Security and raise taxes. Our political interlocutor shook his head in the affirmative. Everyone knows what must be done.
The Bowles-Simpson Commission said the same thing. The bi-partisan group headed by former Sen. Pete Domenici and Alice Rivlin has said essentially the same thing. Ask any retired Senator or Congressman – retired politicians are often the definition of statesmanship – and, unless they are running a hyper-partisan think tank, they will say the same. Reduce spending on the big stuff, do the once-in-a-generation tweaks to the big social programs and then go after the loopholes, tax breaks, special deals and out-and-out avoidance that is rampant in the tax code. Everything has to give and everyone has a piece of the pain.
With full acknowledgement that everyone involved in the D.C. dance is waltzing for maximum political benefit, I can’t help but believe that President Obama is looking like the only adult in the room. Nancy Pelosi seems petulant and not all that important to the process. Mitch McConnell is, well, he can’t help himself he is, after all, Mitch McConnell. Speaker Boehner often looks like the guy strangling two stools – his adult, experienced legislator side whispers that this is a Bob Packwood – Dan Rostenkowski moment where an historic budget and tax deal can be had as happened in 1986 when Ronald Reagan was president, but then Boehner’s “I must keep the Tea party Caucus in the tent” side kicks in the deal looks doubtful.
Obama is at his best as a deal maker who leaves the hyper-partisan rhetoric alone. He is at his worst when he plays like the Democratic National Committee chairman and bashes Republicans. He is winning the daily news cycle by, of all things, being the adult trying to do the right thing.
There is one other thing that everyone, except maybe Jim DeMint, agrees about: the nation simply cannot default on its debts. Can’t happen. The European papers are full of headlines about the prospect of a Greek default, so imagine, if you can, what a United States default would look like. It wouldn’t be the end of the world, but you could see the end from the wreckage that the D.C. dancers would leave in their wake. Cue the adults. They are out there. Everyone knows who they are and they know what must be done.