The strange GOP embrace of Simpson-Bowles

The Republican National Committee today sent out what has to be the strangest press release I’ve seen in a long while. The RNC, in turns out, is outraged that President Obama hasn’t embraced the Simpson-Bowles debt-reduction plan.

There’s quite a bit of this going around. The Wall Street Journal recently published a similar condemnation, and a variety of Republican lawmakers have begun calling for a vote on the Simpson-Bowles blueprint.

This is getting pretty weird.

Look, I’ve never been especially fond of the Simpson-Bowles plan — its approach to Social Security “reforms” is a mess — so I’m delighted Democratic leaders didn’t pursue it, but perhaps now is a good time to remind the RNC and other conservatives of a significant detail: Republicans used to hate the Simpson-Bowles plan. In fact, the reason it’s called the “Simpson-Bowles plan” as opposed to the “Simpson-Bowles commission plan” is that GOP officials on the commission refused to support it, guaranteeing the commission’s failure. Indeed, how many of the Republican lawmakers on the commission agreed to support the chairmen’s plan? Zero.

(As with the super-committee, there’s a pattern of these panels coming up short because Republicans don’t believe in compromise.)

And why did Republicans hate Simpson-Bowles? Because it, among other things, raised taxes — a lot more than Obama’s debt-reduction plan, by the way — and slashed defense spending. It also allowed all of the Bush-era tax breaks to expire on time at the end of 2012.

Matt Yglesias recently asked a good question: “Do Simpson-Bowles fans know what’s in it?

The Obama White House was the prime mover behind the creation of the Bowles-Simpson Commission and liberals didn’t really like its output, so ever since Obama chose not to throw his presidential weight behind the terms of their proposal citing Bowles-Simpson has become a staple of the president’s critics. The problem is that most of these critics don’t seem to be familiar with the content of the plan which has double the tax increases and double the defense spending cuts of the more recent plans out of the White House.

If it were really true that Bowles-Simpson represented the right pole of the debate in Washington, we’d be having a very different conversation. The more likely reality is simply that Bowles-Simpson is “bipartisan” and not what the president put on the table. Since various people want to criticize Obama, and want to be bipartisan, this is the flag they’re waving even while they simultaneously object to the president proposing more modestly scaled versions of the same ideas.

Part of me is left to assume that Republicans have decided they like Simpson-Bowles as some kind of bizarre knee-jerk reaction — Obama hasn’t embraced it, so it must be good. Two weeks ago, two Republican senators — Lindsey Graham and Mark Kirk — voiced support for the plan, apparently without having read it, and today, the Republican National Committee is pretending to be outraged that the president hasn’t endorsed the proposal.

News tip for the right: Simpson-Bowles is much further to the left that anything Republicans have been willing to even think about on debt reduction. Do they not understand this?

Here’s an even more salient question: if Obama were to announce today that he’s on board with Simpson-Bowles — he shouldn’t, but if he did — would the RNC, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and Republican lawmakers rejoice, or would they decide en masse that they’ve suddenly changed their minds?