The Cynical Politics of Claire McCaskill's Deficit Plan

If you've opened a newspaper or a political website homepage in the last few days, you understand that the 2012 campaign is very much underway. You might have also guessed that next year's election will be a contest about the deficit. So don't be surprised if Democrats who last squeaked by with razor-thin margins fall over themselves trying to prove their fiscal conservative bona fides.

Take Sen. Claire McCaskill. She's a moderate Democrat elected in a 2006 by a mere two percentage points. In the last two years, she supported just about every major Democratic initiative. But now that Democratic initiatives have picked up something of a political stench, she's in a dead-heat with her Republican challenger.

Cue the gestures to fiscal conservatism. McCaskill has joined hands with Sen. Bob Corker, a Republican, to offer a new plan to dramatically federal spending to under 21 percent of GDP by 2021. This isn't really a plan. It's a wish -- a spending goal with one simple rule: Cut whatever it takes.

For writers like me who value honest efforts to fix the deficit, this is frustrating to see. We should reduce spending. Everything should be on the table. Bipartisanship is necessary. But McCaskill and Corker have responded to the question "How should we cut spending?" with legislation that answers, "Yes." We can do better.

Think about the size of these cuts. In 2021, the Congressional Budget Office projects U.S. spending will hit 24 percent of GDP without further spending cuts. Without tax increases (and probably even with tax increases) that figure isn't acceptable. So both the deficit commission's recommendations and Rep. Paul Ryan's Roadmap aim for something closer to 22 percent, and -- this is key! -- they offer concrete steps to get there. By setting their spending cap at 20.6 percent, McCaskill and Corker are asking Congress to shave off 3.4 percent of GDP without a plan. For perspective: 3.5% of GDP is the equivalent of all Medicare spending in 2011.

No doubt, this makes Sen. McCaskill the Democratic Party's new queen of fiscal responsibility, and some cable news shows programs will hail her for her courage to break away from Sen. Harry Reid's No-Cut Caucus. Me, I'm torn. Deficit reform deserves our attention, but it deserves smarter attention. McCaskill's plan is political necessity masking as virtuous public policy ... and it's not even a terribly well-made mask.