‘Come together’ breaks Washington apart

December 28, 2012

Twitter has been rather amused by Starbucks’ plan to solve the fiscal cliff by scrawling “come together” on every peppermint mocha and salted caramel latte sold in the Beltway.

This will not bring people together. (EVA HAMBACH/AFP/Getty Images)

But I want to take the project a bit more seriously. I should say, at the outset, that I admire the effort: People and CEOs should want to be engaged in American politics, they should be angry at what they see happening and they should be trying to figure out ways to pressure politicians to make things work better. 

But the specific sentiment -- what you might call the ideology of “come togetherism” -- is, ironically, one of the big reasons that nothing in Washington ever seems to get solved and that the two sides never seem to come together.

I think the way to start here is by being specific. So here are three facts about the budget debate we've been having over the last couple of years.

1) Simpson-Bowles, the bipartisan debt reduction plan that's often held up as the platonic ideal of coming together is, by any reasonable accounting, far to the left of anything the White House has ever proposed. It's got $2.6 trillion in tax increases. That's more than twice as much as what the White House is asking for. It's got more defense cuts than the administration ever even considered.


(Photo: Yuri Gripas - Reuters)

I think it was a mistake for the White House not to have done more to build on Simpson-Bowles. But part of its reluctance was based on the belief that there was no way the Republicans would ever come together around the plan. Rep. Paul Ryan, for instance, was on on the Simpson-Bowles Commission, and he voted against the plan, as did every other House Republican on the panel. The White House saw no reason to embrace something that raised taxes sky high and slashed defense and would never pass.

When the White House brought out its budget alternative, it included fewer taxes and fewer defense cuts. It was a framework that administration officials thought had a better chance to move the country towards a deal. Meanwhile, the Republicans brought out the Ryan budget, which was an exercise in conservative fantasizing. 

2)  In 2010, Republicans won the midterm election. In 2011, to end the debt-ceiling standoff, the White House agreed to a deal that was all spending cuts. It's called the Budget Control Act. It's law right now. And it cuts spending by $1.5 trillion dollars over the next decade. There is not a dollar of tax increase in the whole bill. And Democrats “came together” with the Republicans over it -- and they added in sequestration, an all-spending cuts enforcement mechanism to get a bigger debt deal, for good measure.

3) At this point, even after winning the election, the White House has moved much further towards Boehner than Boehner has moved towards the White House.

From its first offer to its last offer, the White House has dropped its ask on taxes by about $350 billion. It raised the proposed spending cuts -- including reduced spending on interest -- by $400 billion. It dropped the demand on stimulus from $425 billion to $175 billion. It dropped the demand to end the debt-ceiling forever entirely.

Boehner has increased his offer on taxes by about $150 billion. He’s dropped his spending cuts by $375 billion. He's never offered significant stimulus. He's never offered a major concession on the debt ceiling.

So in every category, Obama has moved further towards Boehner than Boehner moved towards Obama. And yet, it’s Boehner who walked from the talks with his plan B, failed to pass it, and then handed the problem off to the Senate.


(Source: Dylan Matthews/The Washington Post)

I don't think you can look at the last three years and say the White House hasn't tried to come together with the Republicans.

I also don't think you can look at the last three years and say the Republicans have tried to come together with the White House.

The check on that sort of behavior is blame. If Republicans are being intransigent and the American people want compromise, then, in theory, the Republicans will get blamed. And that does seem to be happening: The GOP polls terribly, and they lost the 2012 election.

But at the elite level -- which encompasses everyone from CEOs to media professionals -- there’s a desire to keep up good relations on both sides of the aisle. And so it’s safer, when things are going wrong, to offer an anodyne criticism that offends nobody -- “both sides should come together!” -- then to actually blame one side or the other. It’s a way to be angry about Washington’s failure without alienating anyone powerful. That goes doubly for commercial actors, like Starbucks, that need to sell coffee to both Republicans and Democrats.

That breaks the system. It hurts the basic mechanism of accountability, which is the public’s ability to apportion blame. If one side’s intransigence will lead to both sides getting blamed, then it makes perfect sense to be intransigent: You’ll get all the benefits and only half the blame.

The two parties are not equivalent right now. The two sides are not the same. If you want Washington to come together, you need to make it painful for those who are breaking it apart. Telling both sides to come together when it’s predominantly one side breaking the negotiations apart actually makes it easier on those who’re refusing to compromise.

Note: I'm including interest savings as spending cuts, as has been common practice among Republicans in recent years. If you remove interest savings, as House Speaker John Boehner would now prefer, then Obama raised his spending cuts by $325 billion while Boehner has cut his demand by $350 billion.

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Neil Irwin | December 28, 2012