The past week has done an enormous amount to illuminate the contours of the struggle for fiscal sanity in America. It is increasingly clear that one party is committed to denying the reality of the challenges we face and wants instead to bury its head in the ground and pretend all is well, and that another party is slowly coming to terms with the fact that it will have to lead the way if we are to avert a disastrous debt crisis.
President Obama’s budget, released Monday, was the epitome of cynical denial. It proposed to take none of the steps required to address the fiscal collapse of our welfare state — no real tax reform, no real entitlement-spending reform, no real discretionary-spending reform. No change of direction at all.
The president then followed up his denial with dishonesty, asserting in his press conference on Tuesday that “what my budget does is to put forward some tough choices, some significant spending cuts so that by the middle of this decade our annual spending will match our annual revenues. We will not be adding more to the national debt.” In reality, his budget never comes close to balancing, instead increasing the debt every year and doubling it over a decade.
House Republicans did not answer this denial of reality with a politically convenient denial of their own. Instead, their response to Obama’s budget was that if he wouldn’t lead then they would. In a statement Tuesday afternoon, House Republican leaders said that their forthcoming 2012 budget would:
include real entitlement reforms so that we can have a conversation with the American people about the challenges we face and the need to chart a new path to prosperity. Our reforms will focus both on saving these programs for current and future generations of Americans and on getting our debt under control and our economy growing. By taking critical steps forward now, we can fulfill the mission of health and retirement security for all Americans without making changes for those in or near retirement. We hope the President and Democratic leaders in Congress will demonstrate leadership and join us in working toward responsible solutions to confront the fiscal and economic challenges before us.
But that hope was clearly misplaced. By Wednesday, Democrats were explicitly acknowledging a cynical political strategy behind their denials of the entitlement problem — they hope to goad Republicans into proposing entitlement reforms and then bash them for it instead of offering alternatives of their own. “They are suckers,” one “senior Democratic congressional aide” told Politico, “they have painted themselves into a corner.” A true profile in courage for Washington Democrats.
And of course, similar courage is on display in the states. This week it was Wisconsin, where a new Republican governor has proposed to have many of the state’s public employees start contributing modestly toward their own pension and health benefits (though still not as much as essentially all private-sector workers do), and proposed limiting their collective bargaining rights to negotiations over pay rather than benefits. Change along these lines is obviously unavoidable as Wisconsin and many other states confront enormous budget gaps and daunting unfunded retirement liabilities. But in Madison, no less than in Washington, Democrats are intent on avoiding the unavoidable and denying the undeniable. Public employees, most notably teachers from all over Wisconsin, have called in sick and shown up at the steps of the legislature demanding to keep all their benefits. And Democratic state senators, meanwhile, have literally fled the state to avoid voting on the governor’s proposal. Undaunted courage, again.
Needless to say, President Obama has injected himself into the state budget fight and expressed strong support for the public employees and their unions in Wisconsin. While acknowledging that “I haven’t followed exactly what’s happening with the Wisconsin budget,” Obama nonetheless accused the governor of an “assault on unions” and, as the Washington Post put it this morning, “the president’s political machine worked in close coordination Thursday with state and national union officials to mobilize thousands of protesters to gather in Madison and to plan similar demonstrations in other state capitals.”
In Washington and all over the country, then, the Democratic Party is mobilizing to defend our failing system of entitlements and runaway spending by cynically denying reality, while Republicans are mobilizing to take on difficult governing choices and confront at last the reality of what the liberal welfare state has wrought.
Too often, there is not much of a difference between the parties, and people inclined to care about policy are driven to call a pox on both their houses. But as this remarkable week has shown, this is not one of those times. The Democrats are shaming themselves on the premise that American voters can’t handle the truth and that there is political advantage in appealing to the country’s worst instincts. Republicans, whether by choice or by default, are taking up the challenge of telling voters the truth about our problems and persuading them that effective, responsible, and gradual solutions are possible — without taking benefits from current seniors and without abandoning our obligation to fellow citizens in need. There have not been many opportunities for conservatives to be proud of being Republicans in recent years, but this week has certainly been one.
Republicans and Democrats are both at fault for the mess we are in, and for ignoring and denying it for far too long. But so far only one party seems interested in changing that. Voters will notice. And then we will find out who is right about American voters: the party that thinks they are selfish children or the party that thinks they are responsible adults. I have a feeling Republicans will not regret their judgment that the time has come to get serious.
Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs and the Hertog fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.