Thomas F. “Mack” McLarty was chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and, before that, chief executive of a Fortune 500 energy company. Nelson W. Cunningham was a special adviser to President Bill Clinton and previously worked for Joseph Biden and Rudolph Giuliani.
With the election over, nothing is more urgent than the need to confront the “fiscal cliff” in a way that solves our long-term structural deficit without strangling our nascent economic recovery.
In his gracious concession speech, Mitt Romney called on Washington to pull together. “We can’t risk partisan bickering and political posturing,” he said. “And we look to Democrats and Republicans in government at all levels to put the people before the politics.”
In his equally gracious victory speech, President Obama said, “Tonight you voted for action, not politics as usual. You elected us to focus on your jobs, not ours.” He pledged to reach out to Republicans to “meet the challenges that we can only solve together.”
Both men should rise to the moment. President Obama should ask Romney to present the nation with a bipartisan plan to solve the deficit in the long term while promoting growth in the short term. And Romney should accept.
Romney has impressed Democrats and Republicans alike with his serious demeanor and his intellect. His success as a business leader launched his political career, and he showed in Massachusetts how a Republican can work with Democrats.
Obama’s campaign derided Romney’s business experience (something Obama may now regret), but the president can make amends by asking Romney to join this national effort. For his part, Romney may have his own regrets about the tone of the campaign — and may have a desire to make a genuine contribution to solve a problem on which he campaigned. This is his chance to set aside his rhetoric — he can’t really believe that the deficit can be solved with zero new revenue, including from individuals as wealthy as he is, and he has to leave behind the man who declined in the Republican primaries to even contemplate a deficit-reduction package that was nine parts spending-reduction to one part revenue-raising. Instead, he can be the man who built companies and pragmatically parsed their business plans to both cut costs and raise revenue — and brought them back to health.
It would be unfair for Obama to ask Romney to take on the burden of crafting a bipartisan plan on his own. So Obama should also turn to the last president to balance a budget and preside over a booming economy: Bill Clinton.
Clinton said at the Democratic convention in Charlotte that the secret of his budgetary success was simple: “Arithmetic.” He should bring his basic math skills, and his considerable political skills, to the table to help craft a solution to deficit reduction that creates jobs and doesn’t stifle them. The man who could find bipartisan compromise with House Speaker Newt Gingrich can surely do so with a fellow Ivy League lawyer who also governed a state whose electorate was of a decidedly different political color.
The Clinton-Romney commission should begin work right away, drawing on the best of the efforts that preceded it: the Simpson-Bowles commission,Domenici-Rivlin and others. The plan must include serious entitlement reform, which Romney can craft and Clinton can sell, and revenue generation, which Clinton can craft and Romney can sell.
U.S. business leaders, who made a bet against Obama’s reelection, have sat on the sidelines the past three years while politicians stalemated sensible approaches to our nation’s economic problems. They need to set aside pre-election rhetoric and throw substantial influence on the side of bipartisanship. The 80 chief executives who recently signed a letter for the Fix the Debt initiative, calling for a balanced package, should become the core of a much larger effort to get our political leaders to focus on the urgent and not the expedient. Small businesses, our job creators, must come to the table as well, bringing a Main Street sensibility that will add a healthy pragmatism to any big plan.
And to ensure the politicians listen, these business leaders could adopt, en masse, the call by Starbucks chief Howard Schultz to enforce action by pledging that not one dime of political contributions will go to politicians of either party until they get serious on the debt problem.
Obama pledged Tuesday night to reach out to Romney in the weeks ahead. That time is now. He should pick up the phone and ask Romney to set aside the rhetoric and cramped positions of the campaign season — but the president should first show he’s serious by promising full support for meaningful entitlement reform.
Romney should show the American people that the business leader who could reach across the aisle in a blue state can craft a plan that will stimulate jobs today while balancing the budget tomorrow, even with new revenue that may enrage the right.
No one understands the challenge before them better than Clinton. He balanced the budget before. He can do so again.
These times demand big ideas. Neither Obama nor Clinton nor Romney will ever face the voters again. They can afford to take risks and anger their own constituencies. It is time to put their enormous political capital to work for the good of the country.
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