While on the Fiscal Wake-Up Tour, David Walker used to refer to those who take moderate/bipartisan positions on fiscal responsibility (e.g., suggesting that a mix of tax increases and spending restraint is needed) as the “sensible center.” In his Washington Post column today, Matt Miller suggests this centrist position is no longer “sensible,” but “radical”:
It’s striking that both liberals and conservatives are convinced nowadays of the imminent demise of the other side’s governing philosophy. The left says the shocking toll of BP’s recklessness and Wall Street’s greed proves the folly of deregulation and unfettered markets. The right looks at Greece, Europe’s welfare strains, and Britain’s stunning new austerity budget and shouts with similar fervor that bloated government is on borrowed time.
The fascinating thing is that both groups are correct about the obsolescence of the other side’s key premises, yet blind to the staleness of their own. What partisans on neither side seem to sense is that events are poised to consign many traditional priorities of both conservatives and liberals to the ash heap.
You’d never know this from the phony way public life is conducted. While independents are America’s largest voting bloc, the left and right retain a stranglehold on the debate. Only the shrill prevail. On TV, talk radio or the campaign trail, it’s almost impossible to hear the kind of common sense that takes us beyond the usual partisan tropes.
Think about it: How often do you hear the same pundit or politician say that (1) we need to reform Wall Street compensation so bankers can’t get rich taking gambles whose losses get picked up by taxpayers (”liberal”), and that (2) Social Security’s growth needs to be trimmed (”conservative”)? Or that (1) we need to scale back gold-plated public employee pensions (”conservative”) and (2) raise taxes in sensible ways to fix our fiscal woes (”liberal”)?
These ideas aren’t inconsistent or incoherent — they’re pragmatic responses to the challenges we face. But our entire system conspires to ban the expression of a practical synthesis of the best of “liberal,” “conservative” and more eclectic views.
That’s why what Steny Hoyer said on Tuesday was considered by most of us who really do care about fiscal responsibility (and not just low taxes or just more spending) as very brave. (And today the Washington Post editorial board tips their hat to him.) Hoyer did get more specific about a list of sensible, bipartisan policy ideas that are clearly broadly tough choices–not just the “freebies” that sound like they would cut only “wasteful” spending or raise taxes only on evil corporations or the super rich. And for a long time now (pretty much since we said “easy come, easy go” with the Clinton-era surpluses), talking plainly and sensibly about what it takes to achieve fiscal sustainability has become more and more a radical thing to do.
…And yes, I have heard that Peter Orszag is leaving OMB and the Obama Administration, and, yes, I’m hopeful that once he’s out of the Administration, he can get back to talking more “radically,” too. (Perhaps his version of David Stockman’s “Triumph of Politics” is coming?)