February 19, 2013

Like a pair of aging crooners hoping to recapture past glory with a long-awaited reunion tour, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson released a new version of their deficit reduction plan today. Ezra Klein ferrets out the real news in the plan: It asks for far less in new revenues, and more in spending cuts, than the previous Simpson-Bowles plan did.

Whereas the previous Simpson-Bowles plan contained a roughly even split of revenues and cuts, the new one reduces the revenue “ask” dramatically, with the result that the overall plan is lopsidedly tilted towards cuts. The reason for this pinpointed by Klein is particularly striking:

This isn’t meant to be an update to Simpson-Bowles 1.0. Rather, it’s meant to be an outline for a new grand bargain. To that end, Simpson and Bowles began with Obama and Boehner’s final offers from the fiscal cliff deal. That helps explain why their tax ask has fallen so far: Obama’s final tax ask was far lower than what was in the original Simpson-Bowles plan, while Boehner’s tilt towards spending cuts was far greater than what was in the original Simpson-Bowles.

In other words, the plan roughly represents the ideological midpoint between the Obama and Boehner fiscal cliff blueprints — which is why the plan is so heavily tilted towards cuts. As Kevin Drum notes, this is particularly odd, given that spending cuts have already been “75 percent of the deficit reduction we’ve done so far.” Drum adds: “this sure makes it hard to take Simpson-Bowles 2.0 seriously as a plan.”

That’s true, but it also provides a useful window into the arbitrariness of Beltway conceptions of what constitutes the ideological “center.” After all, the Boehner fiscal cliff plan raised taxes only on income over $1 million; the Obama offer raised taxes only on income over $400,000. Both of these are to the right of the balance Obama just won an election on: The expiration of the Bush tax cuts for income over $250,000. Yet these were designated the two ideological outer poles for the purposes of defining the debate.

Of course, there is actually a liberal position in this debate, and it isn’t the one held by Obama. As you may recall, House progressives recently released their own blueprint for Round 3 of deficit reduction; it proposed some $948 billion in new revenues, derived entirely from closing loopholes and deductions enjoyed by the rich. The result of this plan, if enacted, would be that overall, our short term fiscal problems would have been resolved through roughly equivalent spending cuts and tax hikes — which is to say, through roughly equivalent concessions by both sides.

But of course, such a notion of balance is so obviously a nonstarter in Washington that it doesn’t even factor into the discussion in any way, shape, or form. The left outer pole of the debate, then, is to the right of the position that helped decisively reelect Obama.

Now, obviously, Simpson and Bowles were trying to locate a compromise position that is achievable, given political realities. Perhaps that’s understandable; perhaps Dems are even partly to blame for the fact that the “possible” has been pulled so far in the GOP’s direction. But let’s not call this a “middle ground” or “centrist” position. It isn’t one, unless public opinion and the election’s outcome are to be disregarded entirely in the quest to establish it.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.