Can Washington Meet the Demand to Cut Spending?

President Obama’s decision to appoint Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson to his bipartisan commission on government spending is politically shrewd and, in terms of policy, potentially helpful.

It is shrewd in that he is doing what he has been urged to do, which is bring in wise men. Here are two respected Beltway veterans, one from each party. It shows the president willing to do what he said he’d do when he ran, which is listen to other voices. The announcement subtly underscores the trope “The system is broken and progress through normal channels is impossible,” which is the one Democrats prefer to “Boy did we mess up the past year and make things worse.” And the commission gets some pressure off the president. Every time he’s knocked for spending, he can say “I agree, it’s terrible. Help me tell the commission!”

It’s potentially helpful in that good ideas may come of it, some rough and realistic Washington consensus encouraged.

The House Budget Committee ranking Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.Is it too late? Maybe. Even six months ago, when the president’s growing problems with the public were becoming apparent, the commission and its top appointees might have been received as fresh and hopeful—the adults have arrived, the system can be made to work. Republicans would have felt forced to be part of it, or seen the gain in partnership. Now it looks more as if the president is trying to save his own political life. Timing is everything.

But this is an interesting time. It’s easy to say that concern about federal spending is old, because it is. It’s at least as old as Robert Taft, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. But the national anxiety about spending that we’re experiencing now, and that is showing up in the polls, is new. The past eight years have concentrated the American mind. George W. Bush’s spending, the crash and Barack Obama’s spending have frightened people. It’s not just “cranky right-wingers” who are concerned. If it were, the president would not have appointed his commission. Its creation acknowledges that independents are anxious, the center is alarmed—the whole country is. The people are ahead of their representatives in Washington, who are stuck in the ick of old ways.

Smashing the piggy bankConservatives all my adulthood have said the American people were, on the issue of spending, the frog in the pot of water: The rising heat lulled him, and when the water came full boil, he wouldn’t be able to jump out.

But that is the great achievement, if you will, of the past few years. The frog is coming awake at just the last moment. He is jumping out of the water.

People are freshly aware and concerned about the real-world implications of a $1.6 trillion dollar deficit, of a $14 trillion debt. It will rob America of its economic power, and eventually even of its ability to defend itself. Militaries cost money. And if other countries own our debt, don’t they in some new way own us? If China holds enough of your paper, does it also own some of your foreign policy? Do we want to find out? And there are the moral implications of the debt, which have so roused the tea-party movement: The old vote themselves benefits that their children will have to pay for. What kind of a people do that?

It has been two or three years since I have heard a Republican or conservative say deficits don’t matter. Huge ones do, period. As for Democrats and new spending, the air is, for now, out of the balloon.

A question among Republicans is whether to back, as a party, Rep. Paul Ryan’s road map, his far-reaching and creative attempt to cut the deficit and the debt. The Congressional Budget Office says its numbers add up: It would, actually, remove the deficit in the long term. But the Ryan plan is, inevitably, as complicated as the entitlements it seeks to reform, involving vouchers and tax credits, cost controls and privatization. It is always possible that this is right for the moment, for the new antispending era. But the party itself has some other jobs right now, and one of them is to encourage the circumstances that will make real change possible. Here the abstract collides with the particular.

In the long run the Republicans have to do two things, and one they probably cannot do alone, or rather probably cannot do without holding the presidency, and a gifted president he would have to be. They have to prepare the ground for an American decision—a decision by a solid majority of America’s adults—that they can faithfully back specific cuts in federal spending: that they can trust the cuts will be made fairly, that we will all be treated equally, that no finagling pols will sneak in “protection” for this pet interest group or that power lobby, that we are in this together as a nation and can make progress together as a nation.

This is a huge job, and may ultimately require one strong and believable voice.

Second the Republicans should tread delicately while moving forward seriously. Voters are feeling as never before in recent political history the vulnerability of their individual positions. There is no reason to believe they are interested in highly complicated and technical reforms, the kind that go under the heading “homework.” As in: “I know my future security depends on understanding this thing and having a responsible view, but I cannot make it out. My whole life is homework. I cannot do more.”

We are not a nation of accountants, however much our government tries to turn us into one.

Margaret Thatcher once told me what she learned from the poll-tax protests that prompted her downfall. She said she learned in a deeper way how anxious people are, how understandably questioning and even suspicious they are of governmental reforms and changes: “They’re frightened, you see.” None of us feel we have a wide enough margin for error.

Americans lack trust that government will act in good faith, which is part of why they’re anxious. They look at every bill, proposal and idea with an eye to hidden horrors.

The good news is the new consensus that America must move forward in a new way to get spending under control. The bad news is we don’t trust Washington to do it. And in the end, only Washington can.

Paul Ryan is doing exactly what a representative who’s actually serious should do—putting forward innovative and honest ideas for long-term solutions. He should continue going to the people with it, making his case and seeing how they respond, from the Tennessee Tea Party to the Bergen County, N.J., Republican Club. Maybe a movement will start, maybe not. But it’s a good conversation to be having.

The GOP itself should be going forward with its philosophy, with the things it’s long stood for and, in some cases, newly rediscovered, and painting the broader picture of the implications of endless, compulsive high spending. Those lawmakers who have a good reputation in this area—Sen. Tom Coburn is one—should be moved forward more prominently. Congressmen who focus on earmarks, on controllable spending, are doing something wise. They are trying to demonstrate that those who can be trusted with small things—cutting back what can be removed now—can be trusted with larger things.