The Corner

Re: The Joke of the Biden Talks

One point to add to Rich’s note about the disappearing entitlement savings in the Biden talks. The original figure proposed by the Democrats in those talks—which Rich, I think correctly, puts at $500 to $600 billion, and which these slides from Eric Cantor’s office describe in some more detail—did not amount to some huge new concession from the Obama administration. They are the same thing the president proposed in his budget speech in April. Here’s the fact sheet the White House released back then. Same figures, same particulars.


Proposing only those cuts you yourself proposed a few months ago, including nothing that the other side wants but you don’t, and then asking the other side to agree to tax increases in return isn’t much of an offer. That’s the Obama approach to entitlements plus the Obama approach to taxes, not a bipartisan deal. Those entitlement cuts without tax increases would amount to an implicit acceptance of the Democrats’ approach to Medicare reform (squeezing more money out of provider payments and various overhead with no structural reform whatsoever and therefore no enduring benefit), but might be worth considering as part of a deal that also included significant discretionary cuts. Those entitlement cuts with a tax increase just amounts to a joke.


There is some perfectly obvious common ground in which to formulate a deal here—discretionary cuts and modest entitlement reforms that add up to about $2 trillion. That wouldn’t make much of a dent in our fiscal problems, but it would be worth doing. Both sides seem to suggest they could live with that much but not more—not greater cuts (for the Democrats) and not tax increases (for the Republicans). It would give Boehner what he wants (a 1-for-1 relationship between cuts and increased borrowing authority) and it would give Obama what he wants (the borrowing authority to get past the election), and neither side would have to agree to do something it opposes doing—except perhaps Congressional Democrats, but President Obama has made it clear that he doesn’t care what they want. It would involve Obama getting more of his own way than Republicans, but Republicans would still get some meaningful spending cuts—and after all, the Democrats control Washington for now.


Beneath all the huffing and puffing from the president, that’s the plain outline of a deal. But today, it seems like Democrats think they suddenly have some newfound leverage in these talks and are backing away from even that much. They assume they will get none of the blame if that strategy proves disastrous. But they are wrong. President Obama just doesn’t have Bill Clinton’s knack for getting away with murder. If he chooses to be patently irresponsible—as he has for two years—he will be blamed for it by independent voters, as he has been for two years.

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.


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