Pelosi Backpedaling on Debt?

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Is Nancy Pelosi backing off her opposition to the proposal by the chairmen of the President’s debt commission? Pelosi aides are trying to send that message. “In the end I think we’re going to be OK with it,” one top Pelosi aide told me this afternoon.

Politically speaking, the most striking thing about the draft proposal floated yesterday by the chairmen of the President’s debt commission wasn’t the list of sacred cows they suggested slaughtering on the altar of fiscal responsibility. Democrat Erskine Bowles and Republican Alan Simpson went looking for shins to kick, and that makes sense—if you’re going to balance the budget and reduce the debt, you need to make sure everyone shares the pain in the process.

Accordingly, Bowles and Simpson proposed doing away with mortgage interest deductions and the earned income tax credit (take that, homeowners and the poor). They suggested instituting a 15-cent gas tax (eat it, suburban commuters). They raised the social security retirement age to 68 by 2050 (get a job and keep it, graduates). They gutted farm subsidies by $3 billion (grow up, corporate welfare queens). The list of injured parties goes on, from generals to federal workers to the very wealthy, and it is the thoroughness of the offense that has garnered a largely positive response from politicians: the White House and Republican leaders oppose plenty of individual measures, but had the political sense to applaud the general seriousness of a proposal that would actually cut the debt over the long term.

So it was the speed and resolve with which Nancy Pelosi attacked the overall proposal that was most surprising. Within hours of the plan hitting the Internet, Pelosi said, “This proposal is simply unacceptable. Any final proposal from the Commission should do what is right for our children and grandchildren’s economic security as well as for our nation’s fiscal security, and it must do what is right for our seniors, who are counting on the bedrock promises of Social Security and Medicare.”

It is useful to remember that Pelosi just lost 61 seats in the House and the Speaker’s gavel primarily because of her stewardship of the economy. If the electorate was sending any message Nov. 2 it was a call for fiscal prudence. And even spendthrifts on the left had the political sense simply to lie low and say nothing. After all, the chances of the commission chairmen’s proposal getting the votes needed to move it as an official plan, let alone enacted into law, remain low.

So why did Pelosi come out against it so fast? The top aide says she felt she needed to “draw a line in the sand for her base.” But she’s the only national politician the progressive base has left to run to. It seems more like a gag reflex that got Pelosi on the wrong side of this one. Progressives instinctively clench when someone proposes cutting tax credits for the poor or mortgage interest deductions.

Pelosi’s aides seem to have woken to the problem and are trying to adopt the hate-the-details-but-love-the-idea pose others in Washington settled on early. “This was sort of an initial take on it,” says the aide. But Pelosi’s real position on the Bowles-Simpson proposal is already abundantly clear.