The Right Stifles Debate

Now, the GOP is grousing that Obama has appointed former Sen. Alan Simpson—a Republican!—to a blue-ribbon deficit-reduction panel because he’s too “moderate.” Christopher Buckley on the latest Washington circus.

Ed Andrieski / AP Photo

The New York Times and Wall Street Journal report that Rush Limbaugh, Grover Norquist, and Larry Kudlow, inter alia, are in a lather over Simpson, whom they view as a—brace yourselves—moderate Republican who might actually end up endorsing tax increases as a way out of the pit that we have dug for ourselves. The horror, the horror.

The last big commission recommended that we get the f--- outta Iraq. What happened? The surge.

At the same time, there are rumblings in the fever swamps of the left over the appointment of Erskine Bowles to the commission. Bowles was President Clinton’s chief of staff back in those good old days. He was instrumental in enacting the 1997 balanced-budget amendment that actually produced a budgetary surplus. (Remember that brief, shiny moment?) The lefties are worried that he might propose trimming entitlements, Social Security, Medicare. Gasp. Shudder.

When the going gets tough in Washington, presidents appoint “blue ribbon” commissions. It’s their way of saying, “OK, OK, since no one here can agree on anything, why don’t we bring in some grownups and see what they think?” This is generally followed by a wink-wink. “And if we don’t like what they recommend, we’ll just tell them, ‘Thanks, Gramps’ and send them back to the golf course.”

Not much ever really comes of commissions, really. The last one that really came up with something truly concrete was the Warren Commission, and for all its good work, most Americans persist in believing that Oswald was working in tandem with the CIA, FBI, Lyndon Johnson, and the John Birch Society.

The last big commission was the Iraq Study Group. It was chaired by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, the wisest of the wise men. Its Republican members included Sandra Day O’Connor, Ed Meese, and—what do you know?—Alan Simpson. Simpson seems to have become a first-responder wise man. For the Democrats, there were Leon Panetta, now head of the CIA, Vernon Jordan, and Chuck Robb. It doesn’t get more establishmentarian than that.

What did they recommend? Essentially: that we get the f--- outta there.

What happened? The surge.

And so it goes with blue ribbon commissions. Thank you. You have done a great service to the country. Don’t forget to turn out the lights on your way out.

I don’t mean to be flip, really. But if you live in Washington and see these commissions come and go, it’s hard to avoid becoming a little skeptical.

What’s different this time, however, is the fervor with which some on the right are going after Simpson, in an attempt to pre-empt any proposal he might eventually make on the subject of the most critical issue facing our country: the national debt.

It reminds one a bit of the endless debates leading up to the Vietnam Paris peace talks about what shape the table ought to be. If Democrats cannot agree on a centrist like Bowles, and Republicans cannot agree on a consensus-seeker like Simpson, then, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the final chapter in the American experiment. William Butler Yeats, please call your office.

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The third rail of Democratic politics is cutting spending. For Republicans, it’s raising taxes. I’ll let Democrats defend spending our grandchildren broke on entitlements. As for the Republican third rail, one or two thoughts, the first being that we ought, really, to cut it out and get real.

Reagan raised taxes, repeatedly, but let’s not go there. Instead, let’s take two recent presidential models: Bush 41 and Bush 43.

Bush 41, faced with a recession, rising debt and a war, contravened his own body-part-specific campaign pledge and raised taxes. Say what you will about the politics of it—unwise, and not well-handled—it was the gutsy thing to do.

Bush 43, also faced with a recession, rising debt and not one but two wars, cut taxes. And here we are, rapidly going broke and an annual—annual—deficit running at $1.6 trillion. (Trillion being the new billion.) Is it necessary to say that Republican caterwauling about Barack Obama’s deficit incontinence is, really, just a bit much?

Apropos the attacks on him by the Rush Limbaughs and the conservative blogosphere, the folksy, good-humored Simpson told the Times, “Go ahead, keep babbling into the vapors. I’m not out to raise taxes but, for God’s sake, if these dizzy guys can’t figure out that this country...” The reporter noted that here Mr. Simpson “trailed off.” Who wouldn’t? But he got back on the trail quickly enough, with the bracingly direct remark that “I don’t believe we ever had a war where we didn’t have a tax to finance the war.”

So suppose, say, that the commission were to end up proposing something as straightforward as that Obama, having chosen to commit America to continuing engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq, should call upon the Congress to enact a war tax to support our presence there?

Well, gosh, gentlemen, thank you for that most, uh, interesting suggestion. The nation is grateful. Don’t forget to turn off the lights.

Meanwhile, let us, Democrat and Republican alike, give thanks for Mr. Bowles and Mr. Simpson, who at this point in their lives, surely have other things to do.

Christopher Buckley's books include Supreme Courtship, The White House Mess, Thank You for Smoking, Little Green Men, and Florence of Arabia. He was chief speechwriter for Vice President George H.W. Bush, and is editor-at-large of ForbesLife magazine. His new book is Losing Mum and Pup, a memoir. Buckley's Daily Beast column is the winner of an Online Journalism Award in the category of Online Commentary.