In 1994, the Weekly World News reported that Alan Simpson was one of 12 senators who was actually born on another planet. The paper didn’t name which one, but whichever one it was, we can safely draw two conclusions about it. First, the life forms there must not last to age 65, because he obviously has something against those who do. Second, they are a highly musical race, because Simpson has for years been a virtuoso—as he demonstrated again Wednesday—at playing the Washington media, emphasizing the story line that they want to hear and that keeps the fiscal debate so skewed in the Republicans’ favor.
Speaking to Politico Wednesday, Simpson attacked Barack Obama’s “abrogation of leadership” because of the president’s deficit-reduction plan and his “new feisty tone,” as the paper put it. The former Wyoming senator is mostly in high dudgeon because Obama’s plan doesn’t do anything about Social Security. “You can’t get this done without hits across the board,” Simpson said, “and if you are leaving people out all along the way because of political pressure, you can’t get it done.”
I’m actually not as hard-line as many liberals on the Social Security question. Simpson and his compadre Erskine Bowles proposed raising the retirement age to 69 by 2075. I don’t find that offensive. I’d carve out exceptions for those doing really hard work, assuming anyone in this country still is by then. The switch to the “chained consumer price index,” which they also proposed, I’m more skeptical of, because it plainly is a reduction in benefits, and a much more immediate one, and especially for older recipients. But on the plus side, they actually propose a modest increase in the FICA tax to ensure that FICA would be withheld on 90 percent of all wages earned in America instead of the current 86 percent (economists have for many complicated reasons divined that 90 is the best of all possible numbers). So their proposals were not extreme to me.
The question here, though, is the role the widely respected Simpson is choosing to play right now, at a crucial moment in this process, knowing the weight his words carry. He has choices. He could have told Politico many different things. And what he chose to do, at least if the paper represented his comments fully and fairly, is put all the political pressure on Obama and none—zero—on Republicans. And this in turn plays into what may be the most perfidious distortion of the current fiscal debate—that Democrats are as much to blame for the impasse as the GOP. It just isn’t remotely true. Obama put around $350 million in Medicare and Medicaid reductions on the table. For the deficit-hawks, this isn’t nearly enough. But for most Democrats in Congress, it’s way too much. So Obama has put entitlement money on the table in a way that pains his own side.
What have the Republicans put on the table? Not yet an actual penny in revenue. Not one. Ya think Simpson might have said that? And remember this, from the debt-ceiling negotiations over the summer: Obama was willing at that point to put some aspect of Social Security on the chopping block, in the famously unconsummated “grand bargain.” Here’s Lori Montgomery’s lead from her July 6 Washington Post story: “President Obama is pressing congressional leaders to consider a far-reaching debt-reduction plan that would force Democrats to accept major changes to Social Security and Medicare for Republican support for fresh tax revenue.”
And what happened? John Boehner walked away. Because, of course, of taxes. He wanted the whole cake, and when he didn’t get it, he stormed off. And for this, Obama now deserves blame?
Maybe Simpson is a bigger fan of Paul Ryan’s budget. Oh wait, I forgot. Ryan’s plan didn’t touch Social Security either! That must have an abrogation of leadership too. But that somehow went unremarked.
I am not Barack Obama’s greatest admirer these days, as I’ve made clear more than once. But this is really a cheap shot from Simpson. And is it not a deeply partisan one too? He’s “saddened” by the president’s rhetoric? And by Republicans’ rhetoric, he is . . . what? This is supposed to be Mr. Bipartisan, as he has been called—and will undoubtedly continue to be called—by many members of the high pundit class. What could be less bipartisan than taking a whack at a president who has in fact tried to talk turkey with the GOP on Social Security, at risk of completely alienating his own base (if you’re a liberal and remember how you were feeling about Obama in the first week of July, you know what I’m talking about), while letting the leaders of his own party, who have been completely unmovable, skate away unscathed?
Simpson knows he can walk this edge and still be taken Very Seriously because he knows how the conversation in Washington is set up. Democrats who won’t discuss entitlements are not “serious.” But Republicans who won’t discuss taxes are . . . just being Republicans. All the terms of the debate enable blackmail by the GOP: If no one expects you to behave like a reasonable person, then you simply don’t have to—and all the pressure to behave responsibly is transferred to those on the other side. It does not resemble Earth logic, but very little about Washington does.