The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pundits blowing it on sequester debate

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Republicans are waving around a column by the New York Times’ Bill Keller that pins the blame for the sequester on the President. The title is “Obama’s fault,” and Keller’s effort is reminiscent of plenty of other punditry we’ve seen that adopts all kinds of strange contortions en route to reaching this conclusion.

In Keller’s case, though, the zeal to find Obama at fault for the sequester impasse leads him to commit a straight up falsehood. Keller offers up the widely held belief that if only Obama had embraced the Simpson-Bowles commission’s plan, he’d have a good deal more leverage to force Republicans to compromise:

The Simpson-Bowles agenda was imperfect, and had plenty to offend ideologues of the left and right, which meant that it was the very manifestation of what Obama likes to call “a balanced approach.” So did he seize it as an opportunity for serious debate about our fiscal mess? No, he abandoned it. Instead, he built a re-election campaign that was long on making the wealthiest pay more in taxes, short on spending discipline, and firmly hands-off on the problem of entitlements.
If Obama had campaigned on some version of Simpson-Bowles rather than on poll-tested tax hikes alone, he could now claim a mandate from voters to do something big and bold. Most important, he would have some leverage with members of his own base who don’t want to touch Medicare even to save it.

The claim that Obama campaigned “on poll-tested tax hikes alone” is just flatly false. In February of 2012, Obama submitted a budget that contained hundreds of billions in spending cuts — including cuts to Medicare. The nonpartisan Committee For A Responsible Federal Budget analyzed Congressional Budget Office numbers and concluded that Obama’s budget proposed nearly $480 billion in spending cuts — several hundred billion of which were to Medicare.

In an April 2012 speech to the Associated Press luncheon that was delivered just as the presidential campaign was heating up, Obama explicitly cited his budget, including the spending cuts in it, as his preferred model for deficit reduction. And while it’s true that Obama did not embrace the specifics of Simpson-Bowles, in that April speech, Obama explicitly embraced Simpson-Bowles’ general approach as his basic guiding template.

“I didn’t agree with all the details,” he said. “But Bowles-Simpson was a serious, honest, balanced effort between Democrats and Republicans to bring down the deficit. That’s why, although it differs in some ways, my budget takes a similarly balanced approach:  Cuts in discretionary spending, cuts in mandatory spending, increased revenue.”

Obama repeated this message about Simpson-Bowles in his speech at the Democratic National Convention — which Keller presumably watched. He said: “I’m still eager to reach an agreement based on the principles of my bipartisan debt commission. No party has a monopoly on wisdom. No democracy works without compromise.”

In a subsequent interview with CBS News, Obama again confirmed that a balance of tax hikes and spending cuts is what’s needed. “You can’t reduce the deficit unless you take a balanced approach that says, ‘We’ve gotta make government leaner and more efficient,'” he said. He added that he’s “willing to do more on that front.”

This is not a trivial mistake on Keller’s part. It goes directly to the heart of what this debate is all about. The claim that Obama and Democrats are insisting only on tax hikes to bring down the deficit is absolutely central to the GOP’s messaging in the sequester fight. As Jonathan Chait has extensively detailed, multiple Republican officials are refusing, to an extraordinary degree, to acknowledge what it is Obama is actually proposing, i.e., bringing down the deficit through a mix of cuts to retirement programs and increased revenues via the closing of loopholes. There’s a reason for this: If Republicans openly acknowledged this, the absurdity and intransigence of their position — that we must bring down the deficit only with 100 percent spending cuts, and not a penny more in new revenues — would be drawn into such sharp relief that not even the “both sides are to blame” pundits could ignore it.

And so it’s understandable why Republicans continue trafficking so heavily in this massive distortion. But it’s less clear why Keller and the Op ed page of the New York Times are helping them spread it.