The reason the White House didn’t embrace Simpson-Bowles

at 12:04 PM ET, 02/27/2012


President Obama speaks with former Republican Senate Whip Alan Simpson (R) as he walks out of the Oval office to deliver remarks in the Rose Garden. (YU+RI GRIPAS - REUTERS)
Perhaps the most common Washington criticism of the White House is that they didn’t embrace the Simpson-Bowles plan. That was, in the eyes of many pundits, the moment when President Obama revealed himself as a typical liberal rather than a postpartisan reformer. But the New York Times today suggests that much of Washington is misreading a tactical decision as an ideological one.

It’s a frustration for many White Houses that the best way to get things done is not necessarily to support them. For all that Washington thrills to the spectacle pf presidential leadership, the opposition party tends to recoil from proposals that are too closely associated with the White House. The calculus is simple: If a bill belongs to the president, then its passage is a defeat for the opposition. This dynamic is, in part, why both parties spend so much time negotiating behind closed doors. The trick is to agree on a proposal before it can become associated with either party, and thus before its passage can become a loss for one side.

In her long takeout on the Obama administration’s decisionmaking around the Simpson-Bowles proposal, this is essentially what Jackie Calmes suggests happened. The president’s caution reflected his “certainty that Republicans would reject anything he endorsed.” He told Alan Simpson that if he’d “put his arms around” the plan, it “would have been savaged by Republicans, and that would have killed it.” And Simpson himself doesn’t necessarily disagree. He told Calmes that Obama’s “endorsement would never have won over Republicans, and might have been toxic.”

Instead, the White House settled on a plan of “waiting for House Republicans to make their fiscal moves and betting they would get so much criticism that ultimately they would compromise.” This was clear at the time, by the way. The White House was in fact fairly explicit that this was their strategy. “We’re going to be in discussions over the next several months,” Obama said in February 2011. “This is going to be a negotiation process.”

The Republicans did make their move. They did get a lot of criticism. But then they didn’t compromise. So the plan failed, and cost the White House significant support among elite centrists. But a fulsome embrace of Simpson-Bowles might well have failed, too, and it would have cost the White House support among many liberals. Which outcome you consider worse is a political question, not an ideological one.

This mistake of tactics for ideology happens often. Another recent example is Noam Scheiber’s release of a memo showing Christine Romer had argued for a $1.8 trillion stimulus but the maximum option Larry Summers had presented to Obama was $800 billion. Many have taken that as evidence that Summers opposed more stimulus spending. But the reverse is true. As Matthew Yglesias writes, “his calculus was not merely that $1.8 trillion would be politically infeasible in terms of the U.S. Congress, he felt it would be infeasible in terms of the internal politics of the Obama administration, which according to Scheiber featured a split at the very beginning between a Romer/Summers desire to go big on stimulus and Geithner/Orszag concern about freaking out financial markets. Summers wanted to win the inside policy argument, and thought that heading in with a lower ask would make that more likely.”

Now, perhaps Summers made a tactical misjudgment on the internal politics of the stimulus and the Obama administration made a tactical misjudgment on Simpson-Bowles. But disagreeing with means is different than disagreeing with ends.


Note: Graph excludes reduced interest payments, which are often included on the “spending” side in these calculations. (Graph: Ezra Klein)
The craziest thing about elite reaction to the Obama administration’s deficit proposals is that they were, in almost every major category, to the right of Simpson-Bowles. The main differences were lower revenues and fewer defense cuts — in Obama’s plan. And the deal Obama almost struck with Speaker John Boehner was far, far, far to the right of even that proposal. So by any policy-based measure, the compromises offered by the Obama administration went much further than anything in the Simpson-Bowles plan.

That was, in my view, a strategic error: The administration didn’t recognize that it would be vastly more difficult for Republicans to compromise with them than with the abstract idea of “Simpson-Bowles,” and so to make a compromise almost happen, the White House had to move much further to the right, which led them to almost embrace much worse policy during the Obama-Boehner negotiations. More on that here.

So though the administration was right about the polarizing effect their support has on proposals, there were wrong in how to respond to it. At least, I think they were. But that’s very different than saying they didn’t want to come to a big, centrist deficit-reduction deal in the first place. If anything, they wanted that too much.

 
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