It’s sink or swim together

Lanny Davis Former Special Counsel to President Bill Clinton
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Prior to President Obama’s 2011 State of the Union speech, I wrote a column in this space urging him to seize the initiative on the major moral issue of our time — the $14 trillion-plus debt and the trillions of dollars of deficits that will continue for the foreseeable future.

I urged Obama to place former Wyoming Republican Senator Alan Simpson and former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles in the balcony and at some dramatic point in his speech, after he had endorsed the basic approach of their bipartisan deficit commission — to cut spending, eliminate tax loopholes, raise taxes and ask for sacrifice across the board by everyone, including cuts in sacred-cow entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare — to ask Messrs. Simpson and Bowles to stand up. Then the president would invite anyone in the chamber to stand in their place if they too endorsed Simpson-Bowles.

As the president and the watching nation waited, the national TV cameras would have spanned both sides of the aisle, to see who would have the courage to stand up — and who didn’t.

That would have been a memorable moment in his presidency, and perhaps a historic moment in this country’s history.

But President Obama chose not to do it then, for whatever tactical reasons that are hard to second-guess.

Yesterday, the president took leadership that has long been needed from the White House on the issue of the national debt and trillion-dollar deficits. I wish he had more clearly and specifically endorsed the Simpson-Bowles commission framework, although much of what he has recommended has similarities to it.

I am hoping that there will be a better reaction to the speech than after his top political aide, David Plouffe, first floated the idea during four Sunday morning talk shows. The day before the speech, in Tuesday’s newspapers, at least one GOP senator who is working with the “Gang of Six” on a similar proposal criticized Obama. He said that it will make it harder for Republicans to support what needs to be done to attack the debt seriously if Obama has embraced the same comprehensive Simpson-Bowles approach.

In other words, things have gotten so partisan that even when President Obama does something that Republicans agree with substantively, knowing it is the right thing to do, they don’t like it because, they figure, their partisan colleagues will say, “If Obama is for it, then we have to be against it.”

I am not making this up. That’s how broken Washington is today.

On this debt/deficit-reduction issue, the hypocrisy between Republicans and Democrats, between liberals and conservatives, is shared.

Republicans claim they can substantially reduce the debt by cutting taxes $4 trillion, not cutting defense and massively cutting social programs that most affect the middle class and poor. They must know that those numbers don’t add up. George H.W. Bush once famously described such a fiscal policy (endorsed by then-Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan) as “voodoo economics.”

The Democrats insist that they can substantially cut the debt and balance budgets by raising taxes on just wealthy people but not the middle class, closing tax loopholes that favor the wealthy but not the middle class, and cutting national defense — while protecting most social programs for the middle class and the poor. They must know that this is hogwash . . . voodoo economics too.

And the parties share the hypocrisy that you can be serious about debt and deficit reduction without substantially restructuring Social Security and Medicare (including, in my opinion, means-testing both).

Both parties must know that you cannot seriously reduce the debt and balance budgets without taking on Social Security, Medicare and other entitlements head-on, as does Simpson-Bowles.

Ultimately, it is the American people who must face up to our own hypocrisy — and stop placing all the blame on politicians in Washington. Polls consistently show strong support for balanced budgets and reduced national debt — but substantial support, in the 70-80 percent range, for increased spending on health, education, jobs — i.e., everyone’s favorite programs — with just as strong opposition to raising taxes to pay for them.

As the famous cartoon character Pogo once said: “The enemy, it is us.”

So it’s time for all of us to look in the mirror and take responsibility before we badger our politicians for not doing the same.

Democrats, Republicans, independents — liberals, conservatives and moderates — there is only one way to do it, only one way to fulfill the moral imperative of our generation: Support the Simpson-Bowles approach. Create a Grand Bipartisan Coalition to get it passed. Take a timeout from partisan politics, hold hands and jump in the pool together.

To paraphrase a Ben Franklin expression, when it comes to doing the right thing and paying down our debt and balancing our budgets, we either swim together or drown together. I see no other choice.

Lanny Davis is the principal in the Washington, D.C. law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, which specializes in strategic crisis management and is a partner with Josh Block in the strategic communications and public affairs company Davis-Block. He served as President Clinton’s Special Counsel in 1996-98 and as a member of President Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board in 2006-07. He is the author of “Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics Is Destroying America” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).