After writing about the federal budget the other day, I experienced what can only be called “a tea-party moment.” By which I mean, a momentary but passionate longing for an end to deficit spending. It doesn’t have to happen tomorrow, and it couldn’t have happened yesterday, but we have to have a plan for getting the federal budget back on a sustainable footing. Democrats—all Democrats, as a party—need to embrace this goal. If they can lead on this issue and bring the electorate to see how deficit reduction can be accomplished responsibly, they’ll find themselves enjoying renewed dominance nationally. Endorsing the widely respected bipartisan recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles commission is the best way.
What’s clear from the budget graphic I wrote about last week is that the entitlements—Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security—, are growing at annual rates that will continue to put the squeeze on the discretionary spending that Congress determines. That’s why deficit spending will continue, and probably at a rate much higher than the $900 billion that President Obama has been proposing. As the mandated portions of federal spending increase, there will be less and less scope for spending that addresses topical but often urgent contemporary needs.
To the extent that Democrats in the House and Senate have cast themselves as defenders of the status quo when it comes to entitlements, they have taken up an untenable, self-immolating position that will weaken them as a party. Most Americans understand that the structure of entitlements will have to change, and, if they don’t already, they can be made to. Today’s entitlements are simply too good to be true. Originally intended to aid the ill and elderly who would otherwise be destitute or cut off from care, entitlements must be preserved to fulfill their original function of assisting the most needy. But these programs must be modified in light of experience and changing social and economic conditions. Social welfare is an important principle that we can best honor by re-tailoring these programs to fit the 21st century. Simpson-Bowles, which calls for substantial but gradual changes to these programs, shows us the way. It may not be the perfect plan, but you know what? Its huge merit is that it was arrived at, and has already been vetted in, a bipartisan way. With its provisions for thorough-going tax reform and modifications to the sacred cow of Social Security, it represents the deep sort of compromise that can be liberating.
The approach of the Democratic convention and the November election provide Democrats with a golden opportunity. Look at the Republican primary contest and ask yourself, what’s holding together the Republican Party? The alarming strength of candidates like Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and before them Rick Perry attests to the party’s troubling divisions. Were I a moderate Republican, I would be desperately seeking an alternative to a party whose constituents are proving themselves to be so provincial, chauvinistic, and bigoted. Now is the time for Democrats to take the lead. Democrats need to become champions of efficient, compassionate government—not the backward-looking defenders of a lost society that they often seem. Making deficit reduction and tax reform their rallying cries would leave Republicans without productive ground to occupy. The Democrats would win many converts among disaffected Republicans and the unaligned. Democrats cannot continue to defend government spending simply because that’s what they’re comfortable doing.
The Times this week published an amazingly convoluted analysis arguing that it has been politically necessary for President Obama to avoid acknowledging any allegiance to the deficit-reduction plan that produced—even though his current ideas about deficit reduction mirror theirs. The fact is: the burden of deficit reduction isn’t the President’s. The deficit problem belongs to Congress, and Congress alone. That’s why it’s so important that the Democratic Party as a whole take responsibility. Take the lead. Admit that recent economic trends give us the breathing room to tackle the deficit issue, and take up a position in the center field. It’s not just good politics. At bottom, it’s what’s prudent and responsible: a balanced budget—or a nearly balanced one—is what the country needs.