A New Start in Washington

Republicans on Capitol Hill are right on taxes and wrong on the New Start treaty. The former should not be raised, and the latter should be ratified.

No new taxes!Treaties must be judged on their merits, and the essential merit in this case is obvious. In requiring the U.S. and Russia to reduce the number of deployable nuclear weapons in a way that allows for verification, it would do nothing to make an insecure and unstable world less secure and stable, and could arguably make it more stable. Small and modest agreements are good, if only modestly. Flaws in the treaty were rightly challenged by Sen. Jon Kyl. The administration is apparently moving to meet his concerns. The U.S. nuclear arsenal is deteriorating; modernization is a serious concern. But Russia’s arsenal is likely deteriorating too.

The primary reason Start should be ratified is that we are at a point where we have to show the world that we are a grown-up, capable, functioning republic that can negotiate, agree to and ratify a major treaty with a world power. This president has to appear to be capable of it. It is no good that he appears to be weak, his foreign policy formless and gormless. This is dangerous, and summons trouble.

Columnist Mary Anastasia O’Grady in New York and senior economics writer Steve Moore from Washington analyze the impact of bad unemployment numbers on the Washington tax debate.

There is much at this point to be gained by a re-emergence of the old bipartisan foreign-policy establishment to the extent it existed, and to an extent it actually did. We saw this with the statements of James Schlesinger, George Shultz, James Baker, Lawrence Eagleburger, Brent Scowcroft, Warren Christopher, Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell in support of the treaty. It looked like the grown-ups were back. In the age of WikiLeaks, and of a severe and structural recession that has undercut America’s position and its perceived standing in the world, this kind of unified stand can only help.

It would be good if the White House is trying to get those old pros, including George H.W. Bush, literally to stand with the president as he makes a final, formal, unemotional, coolly strategic case for the treaty. He should in fact have them in regularly, as a real and functioning kitchen cabinet. He always seems alone out there, the neighborhood pickup basketball guy playing his own game. The Senate should pass the treaty with grace and stand with the president. It will be good to show the world: America can still do this.

As for not raising taxes—extending the nearly decade-old Bush-era tax cuts—the obvious reasons are obvious, yes? The argument for immediacy: Individuals and their businesses have a right and need to know what their future tax rates will be. As for the merits, a long and difficult recession plus pervasive public pessimism equals This Is No Time to Raise Taxes. It’s that simple. Easy does it. It makes no sense to burden people with further demands when they’re trying to get their optimism back. “Animal spirits, here is a large, cold, wet blanket to help chill and kill your revival.” We are in a time when many states and localities are both dangerously in debt and facing a new reality: They’ve pretty much topped out in terms of local taxation. Everything’s readjusting. Again, easy does it.

Here is a reading on the psychology of higher national taxes at this particular moment. The American people know, and have made clear they know, that the great issue is spending. If we raise taxes now to cut the deficit, it will depress the entire country, because the American people will interpret it to mean that the government will never control spending, it will only try to tax our way out of debt. This will depress everyone for a number of reasons, including the fact that they know in the long-term higher taxes will make our economy worse by making us less vibrant, less competitive, and more individually burdened.

If we instead refuse to raise taxes right now, we will be setting a stage in which cuts in federal spending are the only path. Cutting spending will seem inevitable, like something that will actually happen. This will give rise to hope. There’s a way out! We can do it!

How the cutting is done will be the great question, which raises another one. Will the American people, over the next few years, act seriously on their own beliefs? We’re so used to being disappointed in politicians that we forget to be disappointed in ourselves.

It has long been generally true that everyone hates waste and wants spending cuts, but very few want cuts in the programs that benefit them. Seventy-two-year-old Social Security recipients are adamant that the America they knew as children must be brought back to life, and the first way to do this is to stop wild government spending. But they will fight cuts in Social Security. People on Medicare sincerely hate government waste—but leave Medicare alone. The American people are philosophically opposed to big government but have become operationally insistent on it.

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This can change. We are in crisis, and that fact changes things. It can engender a spirit of unified action and sacrifice. But it will take leadership to make that spirit concrete.

For now, everyone in the House and Senate knows the facts. They know that if they run for office saying, “We have to cut now!” they will be elected. But if they add a second sentence—“We have to focus on where the money is, the entitlements”—they will probably be politically done for.

Democrats hope to retain the presidency and regain power on the Hill by getting Republicans to say the second sentence. That way, everyone whose program is cut will coalesce into the new Democratic majority.

The Republicans’ problem is that they have to show they’re serious about spending while knowing that if they focus on serious cuts they may jeopardize their chance to gain numbers in Congress and win the presidency in 2012. Which is a problem, because it’s probably true that no one can solve the spending crisis but a trusted American president with a Congress solidly behind him.

Barack Obama should startle everyone right now. He will win on New Start. He should confound everyone, and give a headache to his foes, by bowing to the spirit of 2010 and accepting the Bush tax cuts, top to bottom. It would be electrifying. It would seem responsive, and impress the center. And it would help Mr. Obama seem credible, not ideological or partisan but reasonable and moderate, when he weighs in on taxing and spending in the future.

This would further damage his relationship with the more leftward part of his base, but that can hardly be made worse, and a compromise would leave them angry anyway. In time they may become so horrified by the Republican House that they come to see the president more sympathetically.

In his treatment of the left, the president might take inspiration from something George W. Bush once said. It was at a White House Correspondents Dinner in the second year of his presidency. At some point in the milling about, Ozzy Osbourne, newly re-famous for his reality show, stood on his chair and gestured to his long locks. He shouted to the president, “You should wear your hair like mine!” Mr. Bush was amused: “Second term, Ozzy, second term!”