By offering up their joint recommendation last week for balancing the budget, the co-chairmen of President Barack Obama's fiscal commission didn't solve our deficit problem once and for all, or clear a path through the political thickets facing would-be budget cutters. But Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson performed a valuable public service nonetheless: The reaction to their proposals demonstrated that when it comes to addressing the long-term challenges facing this country, the Democrats, too, can play the Party of No.
Last week's media coverage sometimes made it sound as if Bowles and Simpson were taking the same amount of fire from left and right. But the reaction from Republican lawmakers and the conservative intelligentsia was muted, respectful and often favorable; the right-wing griping mostly came from single-issue activists and know-nothing television entertainers.
The liberal attacks, on the other hand, came fast and furious, from pundits and leading Democratic politicians alike - starting with the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, who pronounced the recommendations "simply unacceptable" almost immediately after their release.
Liberals defended this knee-jerk response on the grounds that the commissioners' vision, ostensibly bipartisan, was actually tilted toward Republican priorities. And it's true that Bowles and Simpson proposed more spending cuts than tax increases overall. But most of the programs and tax breaks that they suggested trimming - from farm subsidies to Defense Department bloat and the home-mortgage tax deduction - represent the American welfare state at its absolute worst. And the duo went out of their way to avoid balancing the budget on the backs of the poor. (Social Security, for instance, would be strengthened through a mix of tax increases and benefit cuts for wealthier seniors; retirees close to the poverty line would see their benefits increase.)
Their proposals certainly weren't flawless, but they did manage to include good ideas from right and left alike. And it's illuminating, and very depressing, that Democrats were so immediately outraged by a plan that reduces corporate welfare, makes Social Security more progressive, slashes the defense budget, raises the tax rate on millionaires' summer homes - and does all of this while capping the government's share of gross domestic product, not at some Scrooge-like minimum but at the highest level in modern American history.
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