The coalition of the sane

Congress returned to Washington last week, unpopularity and job security both ironically intact, to greet a president in similar condition.

Only one incumbent senator and fewer than five percent of the House of Representatives will be unwillingly unemployed at enemy hands come January — a ratio any economist would label as normal frictional workforce turnover.

Given that voter-imposed stasis on an institution ostensibly as beloved as cancer, it is surprising so many pundits are calling on the House Republican majority to crawl to the middle of the legislative highway and wait for the president’s oncoming tires.

To be sure, the fiscal cliff is real. Both sides deliberately created it in last year’s “super committee” poker, each wagering they’d get a better hand from a shuffled post-election deck. Now that voters have not shuffled much at all, both President Obama and Speaker John Boehner have to resolve a crash of the political system’s own making.

Under current law, at the beginning of the new year $500 billion of tax hikes and $109 billion of intentionally unpalatable defense cuts will take effect, the government will lose its ability to borrow money, and Obamacare will begin to be implemented.

One or more elements of this doomsday are wholly unacceptable to every individual in Washington — presenting a chaos-begotten opportunity for sweeping structural change. As the president’s former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel once said, we should “never let a crisis go to waste.”

But that’s not the path most pundits currently expect. The commentariat is divided into two camps, with one side predicting that the House will cave quickly to close the fiscal gap with tax hikes and unconditional borrowing, and the other foreseeing a Gingrichian government shutdown, followed summarily by a GOP capitulation to the same exact tax and debt limit increase solution.

The president no doubt would prefer a revenue-only Band-Aid for this mess. He’d get to declare victory and punt the dirty work of entitlement reform to his successor. But the president should aim higher — as in 500 feet higher. That’s the height of each sculpture on Mt. Rushmore. Republicans should be willing to help the president get there by tackling open-ended entitlements and debt.

Pushing through a massive tax increase is not the stuff of legend. But resolving the entitlement crisis, and thereby protecting the left’s beloved social safety net, would make Obama a great president instead of merely an historic one.

If President Obama really believes in the post-partisan rhetoric that brought him to national prominence in the first place, this is the time to show it.