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Plan B: Let problem-solving trump power games

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Thursday, February 17, 2011

People like me - a veteran of the Clinton budget office who's been around these issues for 20 years - are supposed to be "sophisticated" about the president's disappointing budget, not to mention the GOP's bogus response. "It's an opening bid in a year-long political battle," we're supposed to say, part of the usual Washington kabuki dance. All true, of course. And it has the virtue of making pundits seem privy to Beltway rituals that ordinary mortals might misread.

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But I've come to the view that "naive" reactions are more important than "sophisticated" ones if we're ever to get the debate we need. Since the federal budget is the closest thing we have to a national economic strategy (or proof that we lack one), the stakes have become too high to be merely "sophisticated" about it.

The president admitted Tuesday that he's punted for now on the serious choices (in defense, Medicare and Medicaid, Social Security, and taxes) needed to right the ship. Republicans, fearing the noose, look likely to punt as well. Instead both parties perversely compete to chop the 10 percent of the budget that isn't the problem, a duel that will claim as casualties thousands of poor families and students.

There are only two things you can believe as to how the long-term fiscal mess will get fixed. It will happen through (a) an inside game, in which Democrats and Republicans circle each other warily until conditions ripen for a summit in which they cut a major deal. Or, (b) some outside political force changes everyone's calculations.

Plan A has "worked" at times. It describes the Andrews Air Force Base deal in 1991, which helped tame projected deficits (and cost George H.W. Bush a second term). The Clinton-Gingrich inside deal in 1997 helped usher in surpluses in the late 1990s. Plan B was in play in 1992-93, when Ross Perot's 20 percent of the vote made deficits politically salient, leading President Clinton to stress deficit reduction in his initial economic plan.

But here's the trouble. Even if you think the inside game will lead to action before the bond market imposes its own ruthless discipline, "getting our fiscal house in order" is not an ambitious enough goal. National solvency is the ante, the bare minimum; what we should be seeking is national renewal, which requires a reallocation of federal resources. Broadly speaking, it means taking from the elderly and defense, where the bulk of federal tax dollars go today, and giving to non-elderly purposes such as infrastructure, research and education.

I have zero confidence that the inside game can pull this off, because it's failed utterly to do so for decades. That's the story of the Clinton years, after all - a shift from deficits to surpluses that shortchanged the public investments on which Clinton originally campaigned. Any new inside fix (like the one laudably being spearheaded by Sen. Mark Warner) will likewise leave Democrats grossly exaggerating the impact of tiny initiatives in these areas - partly to fool voters, and partly to fool themselves. Barack Obama's news conference Tuesday was a preview.

Why does Washington pretend this way? Here's where naivete is the beginning of wisdom. Somehow it's become a premise of our political culture that "leaders" shouldn't be asked to take undue risks getting reelected in order to explain these problems to the public, and to lay out sensible ways to address them. Our leaders believe that because we can't handle the truth, they obviously shouldn't be expected to share it.

Is this really the best we can do? What a depressing reminder that "political leadership" is an oxymoron. But if that's just the nature of democracy, the only way to get the leadership we need is through better followership. Sounds naive, I'm sure, but concerned citizens need to come together to prove that a constituency for candor exists. It's what Perot and those who devoured his charts and graphs did in 1992. And it's what "sophisticated" critics of the new "No Labels" group fail to grasp: that organizing a constituency for problem-solving, as opposed to symbolic power games or interest-group logrolling, is a desperate national need.

We usually think of public service as something done by people who win elections. The innovative brand of public service we need now is from patriots who mount campaigns, from Congress to the presidency, that are less about winning than about educating, with the goal of proving that a nation-changing third of us are ready for real answers. A willing-to-lose campaign corps of renewal-minded Americans. Call it the new Plan B.

Matt Miller, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and co-host of public radio's "Left, Right & Center," writes a weekly column for The Post. He can be reached at mattino2@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter at @mattmillernow.


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