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.
Obama is uniquely situated to right-size America’s entitlement overhang. Just as the famously anti-communist Richard Nixon had the credibility to open relations with China, a community organizer from the left wing of the Democratic Party has the credibility to fix entitlements.
In Boehner and the House Republican majority, Obama has the perfect partner, and foil, for this work. In recent years, congressional Republicans have been battered for their alleged willingness to “end Medicare” or “privatize Social Security” and lived to tell about it. They’ve already taken hard votes on this subject and they will again.
It’s not hard to imagine 218 votes in the House for a grand bargain that includes entitlement reform, a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, the expiration of some of the Bush tax cuts, a temporary short leash on operational debt, and an end to some lobbyist-driven tax loopholes.
In the Senate, Obama, with effort, could assemble a Coalition of the Sane — the 45 Republicans along with some combination of the two self-styled Virginia centrists and the seven red-state Democrats up for re-election in 2014: Sens. Mark Begich (D-AK), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Mark Pryor (D-AR), Tim Johnson (D-SD), Kay Hagan (D-NC), Max Baucus (D-MT), and Jay Rockefeller (D-WV). He’d merely be asking 50 senators to vote in their own self-interest, a low bar for politicians of any stripe.
Democratic political operatives, barely clear of their election night party hangovers, will laugh at this prospect. To their point, Obama did win the election. But so did House Republicans, every last one of them. The voters deliberately threw these rival roosters back in the same coop — something they did not do in 2008.
The president should accept the opportunity divided government affords, use some of the “flexibility” he once boasted he would have after the election, and assemble a Coalition of the Sane to unwind both our short-term fiscal cliff and our long-term entitlement abyss at the same time. Rushmore requires nothing less.
Brad Todd is a Republican media strategist and ad-maker. His firm, OnMessage Inc., advises over two dozen Republican governors, senators and congressmen.