While I think the deficit commission’s final product was less than adequate to its mission (as I argue below), it is worth remarking on the extraordinary moment we appear to be in on the deficit and debt questions—a moment which the commission has had a lot to do with creating.
Between the Simpson-Bowles proposal, the Rivlin-Ryan proposal, the Domenici-Rivlin proposal (which came from outside the commission), and a number of other ideas thrown around in recent weeks, people in the center and on the right (helped no doubt by the election results) appear to be moving closer together on the question of what our highest domestic priority must now be. There is growing agreement in American politics that the challenge of our time is cleaning up the horrible mess created by the Great Society—the mess that is our approach to domestic discretionary spending but above all the mess that is our health-care entitlement system. That is the essence of our debt and deficit problems.
The question is whether we can deal with that mess by keeping the basic structure of the Great Society entitlements while trimming significantly elsewhere and massively raising taxes, or whether we must deal with it by fundamentally reforming those Great Society entitlements while trimming significantly elsewhere and spreading the tax burden more widely but less heavily to encourage growth and innovation. The latter is fairly obviously the answer to that question—given demographic and economic realities, and given the kind of country the American public wants to live in—but it will take a little time before that really sinks in. It is a very good thing, though, that the question is now being asked.
As the Rivlin-Ryan proposal shows, reforming the Great Society entitlements does not mean undermining the basic social safety net in America. It means gradually building a safety net that uses the market and the power of consumer choice rather than undermining it. That would not mean a radical transformation of American life, but it would be an enormously significant reorientation of our politics in the effort precisely to avoid a radical disruption in the lives of most Americans—a disruption sure to come if our existing entitlement system is left unreformed much longer.
That is what we need now. Much of the right understands this. Slowly, some of the left will come to see it too. The work of the Simpson-Bowles commission in its various parts shows us that this can happen, but it also shows us that it will not happen right away.