By CHUCK RAACH, Gannett National Writer
November 17. 2011 1:53PM
WASHINGTON - It's difficult to find good guys in the deficit debate. And while Congress approaches yet another crisis in the struggle to reduce the nation's debt, some are looking back a year to a prime, missed opportunity.
Last December, a deficit-reduction commission appointed by President Barack Obama recommended a combination of revenue increases by closing loopholes and tax exemptions, spending cuts, and health-care reforms that ostensibly would have cut deficits by $4 trillion over the coming decade. Those reductions alone would not eliminate the nation's red ink, but were significant enough to begin to set the U.S. on a sustainable, fiscally responsible path.
The plan got 11 votes in favor, seven against - three votes short of what was needed to send a formal deficit-reduction blueprint to Congress. But it had bipartisan support from pragmatists like Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who conceded the need to rein in programs dear to Democrats, and realists like Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., whose support could have given cover to Republicans who had signed pledges not to raise taxes.
Unfortunately, the commission, chaired by former Bill Clinton adviser Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., delivered its report in the aftermath of the 2010 elections. Republicans had just swept to power in the House, the 2011 budget was still up in the air, legions of new Republicans in the House had been elected on those no-tax pledges, and Democrats were confronting an angry base and lower expectations about their prospects in the 2012 elections.
At that moment, what became known as Bowles-Simpson could have been an imperfect but powerful vehicle for Obama to re-embrace his call for bipartisanship. It would have required him to view the 2010 elections the way President Bill Clinton viewed Democrats' loss of Congress in 1994: as a course-correcting wakeup, a fresh opportunity to do something big and bold while the public had just as many expectations for Republicans to solve the debt crisis as they did for Obama.
Instead, the president barely embraced Bowles-Simpson, and went tactical and left, abandoning a potentially powerful middle-ground framework for the debt, deficit and job-creation battles that everyone knew were ahead. Predictably, the problem blew up in Obama's and Congress's faces. The president did not like everything in Bowles-Simpson, and said so. But it was the "balanced" approach Obama would constantly call for when the deficit debates reached a crisis in August, when Republicans used a debt-ceiling vote to force more cuts in future spending while passing the buck to a supercommittee that some say was set up to fail. The ugly politics of the debate were, in part, responsible for a downgrading of the U.S. debt rating.
Weary from a long and bitterly partisan fight over health care reform, the president appeared wary of getting too far out on cuts necessary to solve the problem but that would have invited push-back from his base. The Republicans failed to recognize the political reality that, unless they get majorities in Congress they have never had, cuts alone are not a realistic route to solvency. They are equally to blame, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's declaration that the Republicans' primary mission is to ensure Obama's defeat poisoned the ground for bipartisanship on anything.
But Norm Ornstein, a veteran political scientist and author of "The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track," said he was "flabbergasted" that Obama only briefly mentioned the debt commission's "progress" in this year's State of the Union speech.
"The only explanation that I have is there was a conscious decision to not use the bully pulpit to shape the narrative but to maneuver the political process in a different way, and I think it was a big mistake," Ornstein said Wednesday at a University of Virginia political symposium.
Other veteran budget warriors agree.
"There was one really important milestone there where the president missed an opportunity, and that was when Simpson and Bowles reported their committee results and the president did not say anything nice about it, did not endorse it," said former Rep. Bill Frenzel, R-Minn., who for years was ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee. "He didn't need to immediately send it to Congress to demand it be passed. If he had only said, 'Hey you guys, this is the right direction, let's start moving,' I think things would have been a little bit easier."
Former Democrat Rep. Tim Penny, also of Minnesota, had an even harsher assessment.
"There never has been any presidential leadership" on budget issues, said Penny, a Democrat, a key figure in deficit-reduction agreements in the 1980s and 1990s. "The president has hinted at a big deal but he has never put any specifics behind an approach that approaches a big deal."
Republicans seized on a single quote from an unnamed Obama aide during the Libyan civil war to accuse Obama of "leading from behind." Given that the policy helped end Moammar Ghadafi's terror reign, that label has lost its punch. But one could argue that it is a fair critique of the president in the budget wars.
Chuck Raasch is national political writer for Gannett. His column, New Politics, appears here and on USA TODAY.com. A native of South Dakota and a graduate of South Dakota State University, Raasch has covered political campaigns since 1978, including Tom Daschle's first race for Congress and George McGovern's last race for the Senate. He has covered presidential campaigns since 1988.