The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The problem with Alan Simpson

"I always say to people," Alan Simpson told NBC's Chuck Todd, "before you, you know begin to drool at the mouth, and  go crazy and scratch our eyeballs out, read the damn report. It was 67 pages, we put it in December 1, 2010 and people said, "What are you doing to the vulnerable?" And I said, read it. We don't do anything to people on SSI, we don't do anything with food stamp, we don't do anything with people on -- on unemployment. Get -- get your -- use your bean, instead of listening to crap all day long from the right, and the left."

The question, in case you were wondering, was "what do you say to those folks who don't have the comfort of a pension? That don't have a good job that they can get employed at all the way through the age of 70, say? How do you deal with that?"

Simpson's answer, meanwhile, was no answer at all. It was just schtick. It does nothing to, say, rebut the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which took a close look at the changes Simpson-Bowles made to Social Security and concluded that the proposal "would generate nearly two-thirds of its Social Security savings over 75 years — and four-fifths of its savings in the 75 th year — from benefit cuts," and that "while these benefit cuts would be largest for workers with above-average earnings, they would affect the vast majority of retired and disabled workers."

Fifteen years after he retired from the U.S. Senate, Simpson has become a key figure in American politics by picking the right issue, the right enemies, and the right language to describe them. He is like America's cranky grandpa. A bit unfiltered, sure, but loved for saying what everyone else was already thinking. And it works because most of the people Simpson talks to -- particularly the ones in the media -- really do think like Alan Simpson.

For reasons I've never quite understood, the rules of reportorial neutrality don't apply when it comes to the deficit. On this one issue, reporters are permitted to openly cheer a particular set of highly controversial policy solutions. At Tuesday's Playbook breakfast, for instance, Mike Allen, as a straightforward and fair a reporter as you'll find, asked Simpson and Bowles whether they believed Obama would do "the right thing" on entitlements -- with "the right thing" clearly meaning "cut entitlements."

A few days earlier, Ron Fournier, the editor of the National Journal, wrote that President Obama was giving America "the shaft" by taking an increase in the Medicare age off the table. It is difficult to imagine him using similar language for a situation in which Republicans reject universal health care, or Democrats say no to a tax cut. Over the past couple of weeks, MSNBC's Joe Scarborough has reacted with evident astonishment to Paul Krugman's argument that the long-term deficit is not a problem we need to solve right this second.

The secret to the special treatment that deficit reduction enjoys in Washington, I think, is that it's a rare policy area that lends itself to pox-on-both-their-houses politics. "It's such fun for me to irritate the AARP and Grover Norquist in equal measure," Simpson told Allen. "It makes your life worthwhile." It also makes deficit reduction a safe topic for otherwise strenuously nonpartisan figures to issue strong opinions on. After all, they can't be accused of being partisan, as both parties are standing in the way!

This elite consensus is the context for Simpson's schtick. Much of the Washington establishment -- insofar as such a thing exists -- really does want a big deficit deal and really is furious at the Republicans and the Democrats and everyone else they perceive as standing in the way. And so they cheer Simpson calling out the frauds and the fools obstructing his self-evidently noble mission. And Simpson is all too happy to indulge them.

What he's not as good at is actually dealing with legitimate concerns raised about his plan. Asked about legislators who don't want to support Simpson-Bowles because their constituents don't like it, he said:

Either get your country on course and forget the fact you're a Democrat or Republican and get to be an American and get cracking.

So that's it, then: Either you're for Simpson's deficit-reduction proposals, or you're being a Republican or Democrat rather than an American.

Simpson's phrasing is typically extreme, but this kind of thinking is a constant hum beneath the deficit debate. There's a widely acknowledged nobility and morality to proposing painful plans that would require lots of sacrifice -- though the worst of that sacrifice rarely falls on the kind of people putting together these plans. Oppose them and you are, if not literally betraying your country, putting something -- perhaps partisanship, or special interests -- before it.

You can hear an echo of it in Simpson's response to the Huffington Post, which dared ask him whether raising the retirement age makes sense given that gains in longevity since 1980 have skewed heavily toward upper-income seniors.

This is the first time, the first time — and Erskine [Bowles, the deficit commission co-chairman] and I have been talking for a year and many months — that anyone’s going to sit around and play with statistics like this. Anything I tell you, you repudiate. You’re the first guy in a year and a half who’s stood out here with a sharp pencil playing a game that doesn’t have a damn thing to do with: "What the hell are you going to do with the system? "

Persuasive, no?

For a budget guy, Simpson has a surprisingly deep mistrust of statistics, particularly if they don't accord with his worldview. I moderated a panel at the Peterson Foundation's annual fiscal summit that included Simpson. One of my questions for him was about the same retirement-age issue Huffington Post brought up. Simpson's answer was friendlier, but no more revealing. "If you torture statistics long enough," he said, "eventually they'll confess." And if you have enough one-liners, you never have to answer tough questions!

The pity is that many of the ideas Simpson has been defending genuinely are reasonable efforts to solve tough problems. But he has a nasty tendency to embody the worst characteristics of the deficit debate -- characteristics that tend to make those who already agree with him cheer, but that make those who disagree with him more likely to believe the worst about his motives and his policies.

But it's counterproductive. I think Simpson-Bowles 1.0 is a far better solution than anything we're likely to get. So I'm sympathetic to much of what Simpson is fighting for. But part of what's holding up a deal are actual arguments that need to be taken seriously and that deficit hawks have trouble answering, in part because they have trouble understanding why anyone would ever disagree with them. And part of what's impeding a deal is that while deficit hawks do wield real power in Washington, they're so bought into a pox-on-both-their-houses approach to politics that they can't actually wield much of that power. Put that together and you end up right where Simpson and Bowles are now: Feted by the establishment, but lacking both the ability to inspire consensus and the ability to inspire fear that's needed to get this done.