The wrong question at the wrong time

THE WRONG QUESTION AT THE WRONG TIME…. CBS News sent around a press release yesterday afternoon about a special “In Focus: Debt and Deficit,” hosted by Katie Couric.

The release noted, “With this year’s record-breaking deficit of $1.5 trillion — the biggest ever in U.S. history — and the national debt reaching a whopping $14 trillion, Americans are now faced with making tough choices in order for the country to dig itself out of its national financial mess.”

The press release happened to be wrong. The deficit isn’t $1.5 trillion; it’s $1.29 trillion. The deficit also isn’t “the biggest ever in U.S. history,” neither in real terms nor in percentage of GDP. The national debt hasn’t reached a “whopping $14 trillion” yet, either. All of these errors were in the first paragraph.

But while the mistakes were glaring and important, I was more troubled by the basis of the report itself. The deficit matters, but not nearly as much as the ongoing employment crisis. Where’s our “In Focus: Jobs and Economic Growth”?

The media/political establishment keeps asking the wrong question. Even Fareed Zakaria has fallen for it, arguing this week that “the fate” of the United States is dependent on policymakers tackling deficit reduction.

The establishment tends to ignore liberal hippies on this, but maybe they’ll listen to Time‘s Joe Klein, an establishment member in good standing, who asks this week, “Why are we spending so much time and effort bloviating about long-term deficits and so little trying to untangle the immediate economic mess that we’re in?”

Ezra Klein emphasized a similar point the other day.

This is partly why I consider the cramped focus of the deficit commission a mistake. We should’ve had a broader commission looking at getting the economy back on track. Then there could’ve been recommendations to accelerate short-term growth (like the stimulus proposals that have appeared in the fiscal plans from both Rep. Jan Schakowsky and the Bipartisan Policy Center), reduce the deficit and put us on sustainable long-term footing (think tax reform, education reform, basic-research funding, etc).

It may not have worked, or passed. But then, you can say much the same for the Simpson-Bowles commission, which looks unlikely to report out a consensus proposal, much less pass it through Congress. And the reality is that liberals would be more likely to sign on to long-term austerity if it were paired with short-term stimulus.

Poll after poll lately has shown the same, consistent result: the public wants policymakers to focus on jobs and the economy, not deficits and the debt.

The conversation seems to have gotten wildly off track in Washington, and it’s not getting better. Republicans’ first post-election priority yesterday was going after NPR and opposing unemployment aid that boosts the economy. Going forward, the emboldened GOP wants to gut health care, cut spending, and protect a failed tax policy — but creating jobs isn’t part of the gameplan.

It’ll be up to President Obama and congressional Dems to try to get the political world focused again.