Now, Corker might be overselling a bit. Such are our fiscal woes that taking a four-and-a-half-trillion-dollar bite out of the debt gets us roughly a quarter of the way home. So it’d be closer to right if Corker said that anything short of starting in earnest to solve the problem would be a failure. But you might think that only massive deficit reduction will do, and that the Republicans ought to offer dead-weight resistance to any plan that doesn’t, say, balance the budget over ten years or fundamentally restructure the size and shape of the federal government. Or you might think that the Republicans should back only a Band-Aid, do just enough to avert catastrophe (again) and wait for 2013 or 2015 to take another shot under more favorable conditions. And if you think either of those things, you probably don’t think Corker’s approach is the best thing going.
But as a starting point for negotiations, the Corker plan has a lot to recommend it. Most critically, it meets the Democrats’ sine qua non
of concentrating tax hikes on wealthier taxpayers. But it does so while making the Bush tax rates a permanent feature of the tax code, instead of the ever-expiring creatures of “reconciliation” gimmickry they currently are. This simple change will avert the regularly scheduled crises we’ve enjoyed for the last four years. It will mean Democrats can’t raise taxes in the future through mere inaction. It will dramatically simplify the twisted ways we talk about taxes (you’ll spend far less time explaining to your friends the difference between “current law” and “current policy”). And if you think that perpetuating the myth that raising rates on the rich will solve our problems is more pernicious than actually raising rates on the rich,
the Corker approach will deny Democrats a cheap psychological and rhetorical victory. New revenue through limiting deductions can be plausibly sold as part of broader tax-code reform, not a capitulation on the overloaded question of whether the “rich” are paying their “fair share.” In the conservative long-game, having the first conversation instead of the second matters, big time.
Corker’s approach has another, perhaps decisive, advantage: It exists.
Despite having lived with, and indeed courted, the impending doom of December 31, 2012, for nigh on two years, both sides are still, in Corker’s words, “negotiating platitudes.” By contrast, Corker’s got a bill in hand: 242 pages of “leg language,” as he puts it (the first word pronounced like the first syllable in “legislative,” not like the appendage), CBO-scored and ready to roll out. This puts Corker one up on “the only two people who matter.” By last accounting, White House advisers were telling Politico that the two sides are engaged in a staring contest over who’ll be first to even propose a spending-cuts package. With the clock winding down, any “grand bargain” will need a template. Anything with Paul Ryan’s name on it will be quarantined for cooties by Democrats. Simpson-Bowles is the dead parrot everyone in Washington praises before disowning. Corker’s plan may not be perfect, but in the desert that gives way to the fiscal cliff, it might have to do.
— Daniel Foster is National Review Online’s news editor.