Solve This Problem

With a ponderous condescension that ill-befits a recently failed presidential candidate and a United States Senator who has largely distinguished himself by drawing attention to the vast gulf that separates him from his own party, Jon Huntsman and Joe Manchin have penned a WaPo op-ed that announces the formation of a bipartisan band of two dozen self-described “problem solvers” (two Senators, other than Manchin, and twenty-two House members) who are in theory willing to eschew partisanship and ideology to save the U.S. economy. They believe they can, it seems, achieve a legislative breakthrough by talking to each other:

While in past years members of Congress used to interact regularly with members of the opposite party, today members of Congress interact very little with people from the other party — or even members of their own party in the opposite body. Members’ daily lives are dominated by party caucus, policy and fundraising meetings that are focused on winning elections or destroying the opposing party. There isn’t much time left over to actually govern.

Well, there’s nothing wrong with talk. And yes, it would be nice if partisans did not treat their differences as equivalent to the divisions that produced the Thirty Years War. But there are a few, well, problems with this abstract ideology of problem-solving.

One of the most obvious is the false-equivalency meme, the idea that all partisans are equally culpable for gridlock in Washington and thus must in equal measures abandon party discipline to “solve problems.” It’s understandable that any bipartisan group would accept as a point of departure this fiction, but it’s still fiction. One party is dominated by people who believe in a fixed, eternal set of principles and policies that are required of anyone expressing fidelity to the Constitution, to American traditions, and (for many) God Almighty. And the other is an unwieldy coalition of people who believe in all sorts of things, but is generally innocent of the conviction that its party platform came down from Mount Sinai or Mount Vernon on stone tablets.

But put that aside for a moment, if you can. The other problem is the conviction that reconciliation of the two parties’ points of view is simple if politicians agree to compromise.

At the moment, the impasse that is creating crisis after crisis in the fiscal management of the country is that Republicans contend the only real problem we have is the proliferation of domestic spending, mainly in “entitlements.” Congressional Republicans are largely unwilling to identify specific “reforms” that must be initiated to “solve” this problem–in part because they have selectively championed unrestrained entitlement spending (i.e., for Medicare) when it was to their electoral advantage. To the extent a Democratic position can be identified, it is that we have a short-term economic problem that militates against deep short-term spending reductions, and a long-term fiscal problem that must be addressed with a combination of economic growth, restraints in both domestic and defense spending, a reform of a tax system that is insufficient to pay for the government Americans consistently profess to want. Democrats, moreover, typically believe the key to domestic spending restraint involves reductions in heath care cost inflation that require more, not less, government intervention of a type that Republicans have denounced in terms usually reserved for the great totalitarian movements of the twentieth century.

A fiscal compromise between these two points of view that just “splits the differences”–i.e., the type that can be produced by Washington pols cutting deals across party lines–will not only be messy and offensive to ideologues and the two parties’ “bases” and interest groups, but will also be incoherent and internally self-cancelling to a degree that it may not solve any problem other than the most recent impasse in Congress.

That is most obvious, by the way, with respect to the economic problems Huntsman and Manchin cite as the emergency requiring all this bipartisan talk:

We need to attempt those things and to seek solutions now from the system and the leaders we already have. Businesses are not hiring, and investors are not investing as a direct result of the uncertainty created by Washington. Too many would-be workers are not working. The coming generations are being doomed to a worse standard of living than previous generations.

This, folks, is an ideological statement, not a statement of pragmatic abandonment of ideology. Our principal economic problem, it is asserted, is “uncertainty.” If that is true, then any long-term set of fiscal and economic policies is desirable.

But what if liberals are right and the real problem with the economy is a dearth of aggregate demand? What if conservatives are right and the real problem is the perpetuation of the twentieth-century welfare state and regulation of “job-creators?” Compromises that pull in opposite directions on the basic diagnosis of what is wrong with the economy–particularly the preferred Beltway Fiscal Hawk “consensus” of adopting both sharp spending reductions and tax increases–are very likely to damage and reverse our fragile economic recovery more than all the “uncertainty” in the world.

So fine, talk across party lines all you want. Some sort of impure compromises between irreconcilable points of view to keep the government functioning may well be inevitable. But let’s don’t pretend there are obvious “solutions” that fair-minded people would instantly adopt if not for the equal blindness of partisans on both sides. And those who doesn’t understand that problem shouldn’t be self-righteously posing as the only problem-solvers in the room.

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.