The Simpson/Bowles freak-out

THE SIMPSON/BOWLES FREAK-OUT…. President Obama will present his agenda for long-term debt reduction tomorrow, but there’s more than a little scuttlebutt today about what his vision will include. In fact, there’s been quite a bit of handwringing and finger-pointing, following media reports like this one.

President Obama plans this week to respond to a Republican blueprint for tackling the soaring national debt by promoting a bipartisan approach pioneered by an independent presidential commission rather than introducing his own detailed plan.

Obama will not blaze a fresh path when he delivers a much-anticipated speech Wednesday afternoon at George Washington University. Instead, he is expected to offer support for the commission’s work and a related effort underway in the Senate to develop a strategy for curbing borrowing. Obama will frame the approach as a responsible alternative to the 2012 plan unveiled last week by House Republicans, according to people briefed by the White House.

If accurate, this is cause for great concern. The Simpson/Bowles plan wasn’t just the wrong solution on deficit reduction, it’s also a center-right proposal. It would be a disaster if the White House presented a conservative plan in response to a very conservative plan.

Of course, other reports paint a different, less discouraging picture.

President Obama will call for shrinking the nation’s long-term deficits by raising taxes on wealthier Americans and requiring them to pay more into Social Security, drawing a barbed contrast with a Republican plan to save money by deeply slashing Medicare, Medicaid and other domestic spending.

Obama will offer some spending cuts, including trims to the Pentagon’s budget, but his speech Wednesday is likely to provide Americans with a vivid choice between higher taxes or fewer benefits, issues that will color the national debate straight through the 2012 election.

To be sure, if Obama takes the stage tomorrow and embraces Simpson/Bowles as his own, I’ll be severely unhappy. I wasn’t a fan of the fiscal commission — which, by the way, never had enough support to actually endorse the Simpson/Bowles plan — and think this would be a horrible place for Democrats to start talks on long-term debt reduction.

But here’s the thing: I rather doubt the Simpson/Bowles plan will be Obama’s plan. It seems far more likely to me that the president will present a very different vision, and make it seem as if it’s the Simpson/Bowles plan.

Indeed, just this morning, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), who has solid progressive credentials, spoke at the Center for American Progress, and slammed Paul Ryan’s House GOP plan. Van Hollen added, however, that Simpson/Bowles offers a “basic approach … which is to look at both sides of the deficit equation, that is revenue and spending” that can serve as “an important starting point.”

That intensified the freak-out — Look! Van Hollen is endorsing Simpson/Bowles, too! — but it shouldn’t have. All the Maryland Democrat was talking about was the “basic approach” of Simpson/Bowles, because it included a combination of spending cuts and tax increases. Van Hollen is endorsing looking at both sides of the ledger, which is the standard Democratic line.

Ezra added this afternoon that his White House sources are saying the president’s won’t “primarily be an endorsement of Simpson-Bowles,” and “this will make more sense tomorrow.”

To make a short story long, I’m suggesting we put the apoplexy on hold for 24 hours. Atrios said this morning, “I guess we should just wait until tomorrow.”

It’s probably the smartest sentence I’ve read all day.