They used to say that Richard Nixon had a “secret plan” in the 1968 presidential campaign to end the Vietnam War. Pres. Barack Obama outdid Nixon with a secret plan to control the deficit.
He kept telling us of all the virtues of his plan. It was balanced, responsible, courageous, and fair. It was just very, very secret.
Obama favored a $4 trillion “grand bargain” that now looks dead. It allegedly contained $3 trillion in cuts and $1 trillion in new revenues over ten years. But no one could learn with any certainty what the specific new cuts were, or the specific new revenues. They were the great mystery at the heart of the debt-limit debate.
How extraordinary is the spectacle of the president of a country beset with a debt crisis who claims to have a big, game-changing plan to alleviate it — that he keeps all to himself. He’d whisper it in the ear of House Speaker John Boehner behind closed doors in the White House, but the erstwhile champion of transparency didn’t dare make it public.
Why was the president who rode into the White House on a wave of overexposure, who wrote two memoirs and is constantly on TV, so shy and retiring about this one matter? Few things would be more galvanizing in the nation’s budgetary politics than a liberal Democrat breaking ranks on entitlements. It would make possible changes heretofore unthinkable, and partly redeem Obama’s promise of post-partisan government.
Surely the cuts Obama bragged about in the abstract wouldn’t have quite materialized in the particular. If they had, he’d have faced an intra-party revolt. If you’re the president at a time of massive red ink and you want to be an effective leader, you either need to be the head of a party that cares about the debt, or you need to be brave. Obama is neither.
He offered a dead-on-arrival budget this year, then revised it with a gauzy speech impossible for the Congressional Budget Office to evaluate. A few months ago, he demanded that the debt limit be increased with no spending reductions whatsoever. Senate Democrats famously have passed no budget for more than two years. The Democrats are a self-styled governing party that can’t truly govern because their predilections are so unsuited to the new era.
Obama and his team have warned repeatedly during the past few weeks that a failure to increase the debt limit could lead to a disastrous downgrade of our debt by the rating agencies. That’s only half the story. The ratings agencies are warning that failing to do something serious about the underlying debt will itself bring a downgrade. For almost three years, Obama made worse the very problem that will lead to a version of his disaster scenario.
Even if he thought deficit spending was necessary to fight the recession he inherited, he could have simultaneously taken action to address the long-term debt. Instead, he added a couple more unsustainable health-care entitlements. In the cause of fighting for additional government programs, he identified and fought for $500 billion in Medicare cuts. Then he was relatively specific and inarguably bold. Now he has the plan that dare not speak its name.
Appropriately enough, the locus of the negotiations over the debt limit have passed from the White House to Capitol Hill, where House Republicans have produced a plan for matching spending cuts to an increase in the debt limit. It is only their adamantine insistence on beginning to deal with the debt that made Obama’s initial preference for no cuts whatsoever a non-starter. If there are substantial cuts without a tax increase, it will be a tribute to their notorious “inflexibility.”
Of course, the cuts will fall short of the $6 trillion over ten years that Republicans voted for in the Ryan budget. Obama’s specific counter to that budget is . . . nonexistent. On the debt, he’s an expert at letting others lead by default.
— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: [email protected] © 2011 by King Features Syndicate