Paul Ryan summed up the country’s budget situation pretty well in his remarks following the State of the Union address:
“Just take a look at what’s happening to Greece, Ireland, the United Kingdom and other nations in Europe,” Ryan said. “They didn’t act soon enough, and now their governments have been forced to impose painful austerity measures: large benefit cuts to seniors and huge tax increases on everybody.”
Ryan’s right: This is the future we face. If we don’t act, our creditors will force us to. At that point, with our once-great country so weakened that we are compelled to do the bidding of our bond holders, America will be a very different place.
The president has shown he doesn’t understand this. Obama inherited a bad budget situation and in a remarkably short period made it dramatically worse. It wasn’t long ago that trillion-dollar deficits seemed unthinkable. Under Obama, they’re the new normal. Americans now owe the equivalent of $45,300 for every person in the country. Our national debt is speeding toward 100% of our GDP.
Obama’s spending binge has transformed a problem — one that has existed for years, and was caused by both parties — into an imminent crisis. But you’d never know it from the State of the Union Address. His proposed freeze on discretionary, non-defense spending is an improvement over the double-digit spending growth of the last two years, but in real terms it doesn’t add up to much. The president’s calls for massive new spending — rebranded as “investment” — seem like a cruel joke in this economic environment. Even more depressingly, he displayed no appetite for cutting entitlements, the uncontested root of the problem. Obama isn’t serious about reducing the debt. He’s not even bothering to pretend otherwise.
On the other hand, why should he? Obama never campaigned as a small government conservative. He never claimed to believe in fiscal restraint. But what about all those Republicans who did? If Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Eric Cantor and company really believe, as they say they do, that our country is on the edge of fiscal ruin, then why haven’t we seen their plans for dramatic and immediate reform?
We keep hearing from Republican leaders that they “get it” now. They claim to know they’ve been given a “second chance.” They promise they’ve “heard the message” from voters. They’ve been saying these things since the midterm losses of 2006. As now-Speaker Boehner explained at the time, “Part of the reason we lost is because a lot of people thought we lost our way on spending. I’ve spent all year working with my House Republican colleagues and Senate Republican colleagues to draw a line on spending.” Yet it’s still not clear where that line is.
Earmark bans and minor congressional pay cuts are good politics, and in the case of earmarks, they’re good policy too. But serious reform? Not even close. So either Republican leaders don’t really believe we’re sliding toward crisis, or they don’t have the political courage to take on the problem. After 20 years of covering or working with most of the top Republican advisors in Washington, we know the answer is the latter.
In Washington, the accepted smart move is to do nothing to defuse the entitlement bomb. To act is to risk being demagogued to death by interest groups claiming to speak for aggrieved old people. Just ask George W. Bush. The result: Just about every single policy or political advisor to Republican leaders in Congress is advising them to stay away from the issues that matter most. If some rank and file members want to float reform proposals, fine. But big picture strategy from the Speaker and his deputies? No chance. That would give the Democrats something specific to shoot at.
Under normal circumstances, this might be sound political advice. But if Congressman Ryan is right — if we really are approaching the end of America as we know it — then it’s time for courage and political risk. President Obama isn’t up to it. He made that clear last night. It’s the Republicans or nobody.
Thankfully, there’s growing evidence that candid discussion of the country’s core problems may for the first time in years be possible, even politically advantageous. Chris Christie is proving that in New Jersey every day. How many of his own political advisors did Christie overrule before he took on his state’s teachers’ unions with maximum belligerence? Yet look at how he’s been rewarded for it. Republicans are clamoring to vote for Christie in the 2012 primaries, despite the fact he says he’s not running. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, one that congressional leaders in Washington ought to learn as soon as possible.