Entitlement Trouble

Digby noticed it. I noticed. Maybe you noticed it, too: the one time Bill Clinton didn’t get rousing applause from the Democratic Convention audience last night was when he made a favorable reference to the Simpson-Bowles Commission.

Knowing that Clinton probably wouldn’t deliberately separate himself from the president at this particular moment on an issue so important, nervous liberals probably were not make less nervous by this remark from Obama spox Stephanie Cutter:

Top campaign aides to President Obama said that in his speech on Thursday night, the president will discuss deficit reduction and entitlement reform.

Stephanie Cutter, appearing on CNN’s Starting Point on Thursday, said, “I think you will hear the president lay out his plan of balanced deficit reduction where everybody pays their fair share and we cut what we don’t need and that includes entitlement reform.”

Now it’s not as though there is one particular progressive line on this subject. Many, like Digby, think the whole idea of limiting entitlement spending (other than perhaps by reducing health care costs via more direct government involvement in health insurance) is a red herring, and that talk of deficit reduction–at least in anything other than a very long post-recovery sense–is playing on enemy turf. Others buy into the idea of a long-term “deal” (often called the “grand bargain”) that trades limited support for spending curbs on Medicare (and for a few, maybe even Social Security) for Republican support (supposing that’s even theoretically possible) for tax increases. Digby, quoting Chris Hayes’ quip about the risk of Democrats becoming “tax collectors for the austerity state” (a play on Newt Gingrich’s claim in the 1990s that strict balanced-budget Republicans like Bob Dole were acting as “tax collectors for the welfare state”), considers the whole approach bad policy and politics alike.

But it’s safe to say that some rhetorical support for a deficit reduction “grand bargain” and for “openness” to “entitlement reform” is pretty much baked into the ObamaWorld cake, and if he stays at past levels of generality and of “deals” being contingent on unlikely GOP concessions, there will be grumbling on the Left but nothing mutinous.

If, however, Obama gets more specific and less contingent–endorsing, say, the actual Simpson-Bowles recommendation as central to his second-term agenda–then we’ll hear something worse than grumbling. No, at this late date you won’t see any “liberal revolt” against Obama’s re-election, but you could very well hear Democratic congressional leaders and candidates refusing to get on any Simpson-Bowles bus. It’s that sort of trouble the White House must carefully consider before taking a step that would undoubtedly win cheers from lots of Beltway pundits and a handful of centrist Democrats–and probably from Bill Clinton.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.