You May Be Right, Mr. President, But This Is Crazy

President Obama speaks about the sequester, as he stands with emergency responders, a group of workers the White House says could be affected if state and local governments lose federal money as a result of budget cuts, Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)  (National Journal)

Your federal government is almost certain to blow past the March 1 deadline for averting $1.2 trillion in haphazard budget cuts that could cost 700,000 jobs. Don't worry. We know whom to blame. President Obama makes a credible case that he has reached farther toward compromise than House Republicans.

But knowing who's at fault doesn't fix the problem. To loosely quote Billy Joel: You may be right, Mr. President, but this is crazy.

Is this fiscal standoff (the fifth since Republicans took control of the House in 2011) just about scoring political points, or is it about governing?

If it's all about politics, bully for Obama. A majority of voters will likely side with the president over Republicans in a budget dispute because of his popularity and the GOP's pathetic approval ratings.

If it's about governing, the story changes: In any enterprise, the chief executive is ultimately accountable for success and failure. Sure, blame Congress — castigate all 535 lawmakers, or the roughly half you hate. But there is only one president. Even if he's right on the merits, Obama may be on the wrong side of history.

Fair or not, the president owns this mess. What can he do about it? For starters, he could read this op-ed piece published two months ago in a Midwestern newspaper. With a few tweaks, Obama could make it a presidential address. The author, whose identity I will disclose later, laid out a case for the then-looming "fiscal cliff." It is still applicable, even powerful. (The op-ed excerpts are in italics.)

Americans are fed up with the jousting."¦ There is a lot of public posturing but apparently not much genuine conversation.

White House officials and liberal commentators will push back: They say it is naïve if not outright stupid to think that Republicans want to talk to Obama, or that conversations would do any good. I contend it's not any smarter to believe that the president's agenda will be passed without breaking gridlock, or that Washington is the only place where two wrongs make you right. Somebody has to be the grownup here. Let it be the president.

Here's the reality: When facing a $16 trillion debt and spending 32 percent more money each year than we take in, revenue must go up and spending must go down. There are no other choices. So the debate is centered on how to collect more revenue and where to cut spending. 

It has suddenly become fashionable for Obama's liberal allies to deny the existential threat posed by suffocating U.S. debt. They should read the president's old speeches. Debt dismissing is irrational.

Neither party is without fault. Republicans must confront their own conventional wisdom that says, "The only way to shrink government is to starve it of resources."  Government has consistently grown in size and interfered with the private sector "¦ during periods of both high and low tax rates. Spending has become completely decoupled from revenue and that's a dangerous policy. What, in fact, has actually happened under this strategy is that both the debt and the size of government have grown and all debt is simply a future tax on the next generation "¦ someone, someday will have to pay the bill for the debt driven spending today.

In the last week, three senior members of the Republican Party have told me that the House GOP is making a dire mistake to think voters will consider this "the president's sequester." Yes, the White House proposed the gimmick, but only as a way to avert a GOP-backed debt crisis, and the House Republican leadership supported sequestration. More broadly, there is no way to seriously reduce the U.S. debt without more revenue, which means raising taxes.

Democrats must challenge their orthodoxy as well. While annual revenues are roughly what they were in 2006 — just a few years ago — spending has increased by $1 trillion every year since 2008."¦ We must recognize that even though raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans makes good politics, it does little to solve our nation's financial crisis"¦. All of us receive the benefits so all of us must share the sacrifice — either in the form of higher taxes or lower government benefits.

The biggest lie in politics today is that the debt can be tamed without hurting the middle class via tax hikes and entitlement cuts. Obama and his allies know better, or should, but there is no stomach in Washington for honesty.

Democrats have to demonstrate their willingness to put serious spending reductions on the table and Republicans need to offer a pro-growth, pro-job agenda that includes revenue. Most importantly both sides need to lay down their swords and act like the problem solvers the American people deserve and expect.

The op-ed was published in the Green Bay Press-Gazette and was written by Rep. Reid Ribble, a Republican from Wisconsin. Ribble represents one of the few House districts still divided almost equally between Republican and Democratic voters. Many of the rest are gerrymandered, drawn to easily elect a hyper-partisan conservative or liberal. It is one cause of gridlock, what voters loathe about Washington.

I wonder what would happen if Obama were to deliver such an address. Would voters reward him for the honesty of the argument and the courage of challenging his liberal base? Would he change the tone of the debate from mindless sniping to an environment in which leaders are publicly shamed if they offer no solutions?

I may be wrong. I may be crazy. But I suspect we'll never know.