Partisanship Is Not To Blame For the Debt Crisis

Sen. Evan Bayh's announced retirement has been interpreted in some corners as a sign that Washington isn't a place for moderates with centrist solutions anymore. The capital has become an intractable, broken city where issues like debt reduction are sacrificed for partisan gain. Exuent the centrist ... and with him, a nation's hopes.

I think that's pretty rich stuff. There is nothing inherently wise about moderation*, and it doesn't seem to me that there was anything particularly brave about Bayh's moderation. Sure I lament D.C. partisanship and bash Republican obstructionism when I get the opportunity. But it's not as though we face an intractable debt crisis because of Washington gridlock. We face an intractable debt crisis because politicians have taught voters to expect much more than they pay for, and have no incentive in reversing those promises.

Our debt crisis is complicated. But the solution can be stated simply: raise taxes and cut entitlements. I can't find a serious policy thinker who has a different answer. But I can find you more than 500 elected representatives who have, not partisan, but shared interests in doing neither of those things. Raising taxes is unpopular with everybody, especially Republicans, and cutting entitlements is (a) unpopular with seniors and soon-to-be-seniors, who are the loudest and most consistent donors and primary voters and (b) off the table for many Democrats. Even the "bipartisan" deficit commission was rigged to fail. In other words, both parties seem to agree: the debt is serious, and they won't do anything meaningful about it this year. That's not the failure of bipartisanship. That's bipartisan unity!

If one thing was made clear from yesterday's event with Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform, it's that experts seem to agree that the debt is a crisis; that the solution involves a mix of tax increases and Medicare cuts; and that Washington lacks both the will and incentive to do anything about it. That Democrats and Republicans aren't working well together is ancillary to the fact that neither team particularly wants to work on this issue at all.

*(This is really indulgent footnote, sorry.) Washington's fascination with centrism reminds me of one of my favorite mondegreens. Many people quote Aristotle as having once said "Everything in moderation." The proper translation is actually: "Nothing too much." What's the distinction? It's that there is no particular virtue in moderation. In fact, one can be immoderately obsessed with appearing moderate all the time.