A new standard for ‘seriousness’

A NEW STANDARD FOR ‘SERIOUSNESS’…. The political establishment’s preoccupation with deficit reduction — as opposed to, say, job creation — is annoying enough on its own. What’s worse is the presupposed fixes to the nation’s fiscal problems.

For years, the standard for establishment credibility has been pretty straightforward: policymakers who want to cut Social Security and Medicare are considered “serious.” Those who don’t are labeled “irresponsible.” Those in former group get invited onto Sunday shows and receive praise in David Broder columns. Those in the latter receive establishment scorn.

This frame appears to be evolving, but not in a good way. Dave Weigel noted yesterday that Republicans have begun aggressively incorporating the word “leadership” into their talking points. The point isn’t subtle — if President Obama doesn’t agree to cuts, he’s not only lacking in “credibility” and “seriousness,” he’s not a “leader,” either.

I get the argument. The White House doesn’t want to cut Social Security and Medicare, the pitch goes, but if Obama is going to turn around our fiscal fortunes, he’s going to have to go along with the GOP and the establishment, and do what he doesn’t want to do. That this would involve the president thumbing his nose at his base would only make this more appealing to Republicans and give it more weight with D.C. insiders.

All of this is misguided, and it’s a reminder that the discourse is overdue for a detour. As Jonathan Cohn noted today, those who sincerely want to reduce the deficit are going to have to “talk about taxes.”

With unemployment still too high and growth still too low, I’m not sure why budget deficits and the federal debt are suddenly the exclusive focus of our political conversation. But a serious conversation about how to stabilize the government’s finances is now taking place, in the media and behind closed doors in Congress.

At least, it’s supposed to be serious…. In the long run, we can’t stabilize federal finances entirely by letting the Bush tax cuts lapse. That’s probably going to require some spending reductions, too, primarily on health care. But, as both Weigel and my colleague Alex Hart have pointed out, it’s ridiculous to have a conversation about balancing the budget that won’t even contemplate higher taxes.

Quite right. In 2001, Republicans were handed a spectacular fiscal future — they had huge surpluses, the debt was being paid off the first time in four decades, and the various debt clocks had to be shut down (they hadn’t been programmed to run backwards). They proceeded to slash taxes, and deficits soon followed. Bush-era tax breaks aren’t the only factor driving the budget shortfalls, but they’re a major culprit.

(Oh, and incidentally, they failed as an economic policy anyway, failing to create the millions of jobs promised by GOP proponents when approved.)

Is it so unreasonable to consider a more responsible policy — one that moves away from what we know didn’t work?

I’m not saying deficit reduction should be a high priority right now; I happen to believe the opposite. But if the budget shortfall is going to be on the to-do list, there are only a couple of options in shrinking the deficit — the government can spend less, take in more, or some combination of the two.

Republicans argue that the debt is threatening the fabric of our civilization, but they refuse to even consider one of the two ways to solve the problem. With that in mind, it’s time for a new standard — to be considered “serious” and “credible,” policymakers are going to have to accept the fact that tax increases must be part of the fiscal mix.