Friday, June 15, 2012

If You Won't Be Honest, You Won't Stop the Extremism

It's always a disappointment to read Michael Gerson, because even when he opens a column with an idea that appears promising he inevitably reverts to the weak, partisan thinking that exemplifies his... entire career. Gerson used Jeb Bush's testimony before the House Budget Committee as a launching point, and I am fully prepared to give Jeb Bush credit for pushing back against anti-tax pledges, a stance Gerson appears to support. But Gerson quickly resorts to stenography, plucking out the more ideological components of Bush's testimony without relating them to actual facts. Why? Because, in my opinion, Gerson knows the facts and knows that they refute some of the arguments that Bush was making. To advance his own ideological agenda, Gerson uses Bush as a proxy to advance an argument he knows to be false.

For example, Gerson plucks out some choice phrases and strings them together as follows:
Bush insists that responsibility for dysfunction in Washington is shared, but not equally. “I’m disgusted by the system. But Democrats are more to blame, because they control the Senate and the presidency. They have not led.” At least Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget, he argues, “put a down payment on the problem. But congressional Democrats are using it as a tool to plug Republicans and don’t even offer a budget.” The president received the report of his deficit reduction commission, but, Bush said, “hasn’t uttered the words ‘Simpson’ and ‘Bowles’ in the same sentence again.”
We can start by asking, where was Jeb Bush when his brother was in the White House? Why did he remain silent during the glorious period when the Republicans controlled all three branches of government? I understand why Gerson doesn't want to mention the history or legacy of Jeb's brother, G.W., as (a) that history reflects terrible Republican governance, (b) it undermines Jeb's present assignment of blame, and (c) Gerson was employed by the G.W. Bush Administration and was thus part of the problem. But still, an honest man would acknowledge at least some of that reality.

It's quite easy to understand why we're not reaching "grand bargains" on important issues when we're looking at gridlock created by the ideological rigidity of the minority party and its extraordinary use of procedural rules to block the progress of important - and even unimportant - legislation. But if we are to say that the Democrats aren't showing enough "leadership" to get the Republicans to come across the aisle and support legislation addressing major problems, what are we to make of the failure of the Bush Administration to fix the nation's problems - or of the fact that it's policies served to worsen some of the nation's problems - in an era when it was able to obtain sufficient Democratic support to pass most important legislation?

Paul Ryan's plan can be said to "put a down payment on the problem" if that means sneaking a credit card out of somebody's wallet, using it to put a down payment on an item you want, and chuckling about "the look on that guy's face when he gets the bill," but as actual economic policy it's a bad joke. Jeb Bush might respond, "at least it's something", which is not actually a defense of his argument or support for his position, but his endorsement was pretty thin. Gerson has no similar excuse. He knows better. He prefers to let a Republican talking point stand and imply that Ryan's plan is somehow "serious", than to address the facts.

Finally, as Gerson surely remembers, the G.W. Bush Administration was big on the notion of privatizing Social Security until it found out that people hated the concept, so it changed its terminology - and started to complain that the use of the term "privatization" was unfair even though they were the ones who introduced it. Gerson knows that President Obama attempted to broker a deficit reduction deal with the Republicans that largely followed Bowles-Simpson. The fact that he didn't expressly reference the unpopular, unsuccessful deficit reduction commission or the report of its leading members does not change the substance of the proposed "grand bargain", and it's simply dishonest of both Jeb Bush and Michael Gerson to pretend otherwise.

As previously mentioned, Gerson acknowledges President Obama's effort to broker a "grand bargain" on deficit reduction:
Republicans in Congress are led by House Speaker John Boehner — who attempted a budget deal including tax increases — and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. These are hardly the four horsemen of the tea party apocalypse.
Gerson knows that it was Boehner, not President Obama, who refused the deal. Gerson's boss, Fred Hiatt, recently wrote a missive complaining that it was somehow the President's fault that Boehner walked away, apparently because Obama was serious about balancing the budget and wanted a sufficient tax increase to actually achieve that goal. So when Gerson argues,
Addressing this vast structural problem will require a grand bargain that includes entitlement reform and higher revenue. Those who rule out the possibility of compromise as a matter of ideology are undermining the public interest.
he should include a correction of Bush's pretense that the failure resulted from Obama's failure to lead. Although I agree with Gerson that if anti-tax zealots dictate policy "all hope is lost", there is no evidence that the Republican Party is willing to stand up to the likes of "[Grover] Norquist and [Rep. Debbie] Wasserman Schultz". Pretending that the Ryan Plan is credible, that John Boehner is prepared to stand up to that type of pressure, or that Mitt Romney should be expected to do so? At best, naive.

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