Re: The Supercommittee, Compromise and 2012

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With the demise of the supercomittee today, there’s a certain section of Washington that is mourning the death of bipartisan compromise, too. Michael Scherer deftly writes its eulogy with an eye to the next election:

Whatever happens, the losing party is likely to retrench to the margins. This has been the pattern for the past decade. In American politics, each defeat is inevitably interpreted as a need to return to “core values” and to rebuild the party brand. That means that more intransigence, not less. And if a muddled 2012 result greets Americans on November 4, then power will remain shared, with both parties having veto power over the other. In other words, bipartisanship is the only route to a long-term deficit deal. Compromise is the only alternative. And since the American system will offer voters no “compromise” lever next year, it will be hard for the outraged voter to speed the return to long-range fiscal sanity. Next year, voters will be able, instead, to vote for more or less benefit cuts, and more or less tax hikes, with no clear path for any of it to pass.

This is why no one should take the political arguments favoring the supercommittee’s failure at face value. They are rooted in the potential for short-term political gain, not in a desire to solve the country’s long-term deficit problem. That is pretty much the current definition of Washington. President Obama pointed this out at length during the summer, when he repeatedly charged that Republicans were putting their self-interest ahead of the country’s interest. And President Obama was punished for it. So now he would rather travel through Asia than wade into the muck of Congressional dysfunction.

He is right that the current political environment–split government, slim majorities, a frequently invoked filibuster–makes bipartisan action the only way to pass anything difficult in the foreseeable future. But I think he may be mischaracterizing the motivations of the major actors in this.

Scherer writes that the partisans who were glad to see the supercomittee deadlock were primarily interested in “short-term political gain.” Indeed, entitlement cuts and tax hikes are powerful electoral issues that lend themselves to demagoguery, but I don’t think Bernie Sanders objected to the likely framework of bipartisan compromise because he was worried about his Senate seat–he sincerely believed that cuts to the social safety net would be worse for the country than running deficits in the near term. At the same time, I think many Republicans sincerely believed that raising taxes on anyone during fragile economic times would present a greater risk to the nation’s wellbeing than red ink–afterall, the GOP has moved to cut taxes without concern for its budgetary impact many times in the recent past. Of course there are electoral motivations for both sets of partisans–the power of the Norquistian pledge remains unquestionable–but there is a very real philosophical difference here that shouldn’t be glossed over as mere election-season jujitsu.

The flip side of this is that favoring compromise isn’t some lofty ideal impervious to political motivation. President Obama, whom Scherer praises for holding “a different view, one that accepts the reality that neither party has the ability to accomplish anything unilaterally at this time and that accomplishing something is in the national interest,” may also be taking into consideration “short-term political gain.” Obama desperately needs independents to win re-election next year and has a clear interest in casting himself as the disapproving adult. Of course, as with the so-called partisans, that’s not the whole story. His position is the product of both political and policy calculations–and in staking out his position, Obama has made it clear that he thinks deficit reduction is more important “to the national interest” than avoiding cuts to federal entitlement benefits. The conceit in holding such a compromise in higher esteem (“getting something done”) than the “partisan” positions is that its policy position is the right one: that deficit reduction is more in the national interest than protecting status quo tax rates or benefit checks. This is something worth debating, but I’m not sure there’s one objective answer, especially when you consider that the supercommittee was tasked with cutting the deficit by $1.2 trillion, a drop in the bucket of long-term red ink, with no guarantee that underlying factors such as our swiss cheese tax code or quickly rising health care costs would be seriously addressed.

Ideally, these ideological differences are something for voters to weigh in on. And putting aside the nature of their outrage (I’ve seen little to suggest that the American electorate is clamoring for “fiscal sanity” any more than it’s clamoring for more benefits or fewer taxes),  I think the heart of Scherer’s point is that while voters will get a clear ideological choice in the next election, whichever coalition they select won’t actually be able to carry out its agenda without meeting in the middle. But is that really an indictment of hardened partisan positions? As Scherer writes, no matter what happens, there’s “no clear path for any of it to pass.” A legislative system that is unable to empower anything less than a supermajority to carry out its policy goals seems to be the culprit here, not insufficient fealty to the merits of compromise.