China and its Discontents

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Where are the David Stockmans in the White House?

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This op/ed in the New York Times written by Reagan’s OMB director and former Republican congressman David Stockman is the best piece of writing I have read about the deficit in the past year. And Stockman even manages to be bipartisan in his criticism of the various deficit plans! It’s common knowledge at this point that Rep. Ryan’s budget makes the deficit worse immediately by extending the Bush tax cuts and not doing anything with Medicare until the 2020’s; furthermore he focuses on cost-shifting and raising the burden on seniors and the poor and not on actually making the delivery of healthcare cheaper. But what Stockman reintroduces to the debate is that the Obama budget has its own problems – it is too timid and doesn’t call for any shared sacrifice from the middle class in the form of raised taxes.

This is the liberal argument we have been missing. But it’s also a realistic argument that states the obvious. The deficit debate has measurably shifted to the right – first, the Simpson-Bowles Deficit Commission was supposed to be the centrist plan, the compromise. Then the Republican Study Group’s budget was labeled conservative, the Ryan plan was labeled ‘serious’ and moderately conservative, and the Obama plan came out to the right of the Deficit Commission. Viola – a new middle, seriously shifted to the right.

There seems to be two methods of leading and bargaining in a political context – first, “The American President”-Michael Douglas style, where a leader articulates his preferred outcome, negotiates and compromises. Or, the second, where a leader releases a bargaining position that is designed to appeal to the other side, already compromised from the ideal. The President embraced the second tactic from the get-go, and he’s received a lot of flak from the Left and the media for doing so. Personally, I’m torn – I’m sure the success of tactic #1 is idealized, where the perfect outcome only exists in movies, like “The American President.” At the same time, I think the country needs presidential leadership with an aspirational vision. I don’t see that vision articulated in the Obama White House. I see: “We’re cutting less spending than the other guy.”

So does the White House need more David Stockmans in the White House – and a more liberal-sounding president? Do we need more people like Jared Bernstein, Biden’s economic advisor who just resigned to join the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities? I’d like to think so, if only because I still believe policy is ultimately an extension of the values we hold as a country. And would that mindset cause negotiations to grind to a halt, and lose on every priority the president has? Ideological conviction doesn’t seem to have stopped the Republicans from winning the debate.