Monday, November 15, 2010

In Defense of Bipartisanship and the Deficit Commission

As we peer into society's future, we -- you and I, and our government -- must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.

--President Dwight Eisenhower, January 17, 1961.
When President Eisenhower voiced these words at the end of his presidency, he did so from the vantage point of experience and historical insight. Sixteen years earlier, he helped lead U.S. military forces to victory in the European theater and oversaw the occupation of post-war Germany. As president, he ended our involvement in the Korean conflict, stood up to McCarthyism, and oversaw the development of the interstate highway system. He had seen firsthand America’s capacity to set aside partisan differences to fulfill a sense of national purpose, in defeating tyranny, in mobilizing a war effort, and in building a modern economy. With the nation then on the verge of a New Frontier, about to inaugurate an idealistic, young president, our history was replete with examples of liberals and conservatives, the religious and non-religious, the working class and the educated elite, coming together for the common good. Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy each understood the viability of American resolve, that when we commit our energies and resources to problems of national import, when we work together towards a common goal, there is little we as a people cannot accomplish.

In confronting the economic and budgetary crises of today, we once again need a bipartisan appeal to the national interest, a serious effort at compromise and problem solving. Although the rising tide of national debt is less understood, and often perceived as less urgent, by policy makers, the media, and the public, the long-term threat to our economy is real and substantial. It is a problem that affects us all, with the burdens particularly hard on future generations. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), this year’s deficit alone is expected to be $1.3 trillion (that’s $1,300,000,000,000). The total federal debt is now at approximately $14 trillion and growing. Absent major adjustments, we will pay over $1 trillion a year, or nearly 40% of every tax dollar, on nothing more than interest on the national debt by 2020. The CBO estimates that an additional $8 trillion will be added to the national debt in the next decade absent significant budgetary reform.

Over time, persistently large deficits of this magnitude will only increase national debt as a share of the economy, push up interest rates, crowd out productive investments, retard economic growth, and cause serious long-term damage to the economy. As the country borrows more money to finance the debt, increasing amounts are loaned by foreign investors who collect the interest payments and siphon much of our economic output. According to the Center on Budget Priorities and Policy (CBPP), absent positive adjustments, “the national debt will climb from 53 percent of GDP in 2009 to 314 percent of GDP by 2050, or more than three times the size of the U.S. economy.” It does not take a degree in mathematics to understand that this is unsustainable in the long-term, that our ability to repair our declining infrastructure, sustain a strong national defense, protect the environment, aid the poor, and provide medical care to the elderly, will become increasingly difficult.

It is true that the events and policies that have created the record deficits were largely outside of President Obama’s control. There is little disputing that a decade of Bush tax cuts and the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with the worst economic slump since the Great Depression, are almost exclusively responsible for the current deficits. But while President Obama may have inherited the present mess, that fact does not lessen his responsibility to address the fiscal imbalance and use the prestige and influence of his office to propose solutions.

Unless we wish simply to pass along the debt burden to our children and their children, it is time to set aside partisan differences and develop real solutions to what is a very real problem. Of course, there is no way to balance the budget and to unburden future generations from the mountains of debt that we have bequeathed them without some combination of (1) tax increases, and (2) spending cuts. Yet these are the very things that politicians most hate to do, because they make everyone unhappy. No one, especially those with partisan passions, enjoys the art of compromise and making hard choices. It is, however, essential to governing. For this very reason, President Obama established the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform by Executive Order in February 2010.

The Deficit Commission, co-chaired by Erskine Bowles (former Chief of Staff to President Clinton) and Alan Simpson (former Republican Senator from Wyoming), is made up of a respected mix of bipartisan experts who aim to offer politically realistic and economically viable solutions to the debt crisis. As Jonathan Chait of The New Republic notes, the premise of the Deficit Commission is that “reducing the long-term deficit is very hard. All the options are unpopular. If you try to do it while imposing your party’s ideal vision of federal priorities, the other party will demagogue you to death and you’ll fail. So you need to find some way to reduce the deficit that falls short of your ideal while constituting an improvement over a status quo of letting the deficit run unchecked.” Or as President Obama said recently, "If people are, in fact, concerned about spending, debt, deficits, and the future of our country, then they're going to need to be armed with the information about the kinds of choices that are going to be involved."

Unfortunately, the initial reaction to a draft proposal put forth by Bowles and Simpson has been decidedly chilly. Conservatives opposed to any type of tax increase, including most of the Tea Party movement and anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist, are unhappy, while the Wall Street Journal editorial page is skeptical. The biggest outcry, however, has been from liberals. commenced a campaign to tell the President “that Americans will not stand for this Deficit Commission report and he must reject it immediately.” Paul Krugman of the New York Times has said that “the deficit commission should be told to fold its tents and go away.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the Bowles-Simpson plan “simply unacceptable.” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka stated that the proposal essentially tells “working Americans to drop dead.” This is disappointing.

To be sure, there is much wrong with the Simpson-Bowles proposal, but to reject it out of hand is irresponsible and short sighted. First, the Bowles-Simpson proposal is not the Deficit Commission’s report – that will come later and will need the support of at least 14 of its 18 members; Bowles-Simpson is nothing more than a 50-page power point presentation of key talking points. It is a discussion starter, nothing more, nothing less. Second, liberals are ignoring a fundamental principle of democracy – politics is the art of the possible. Unless they can successfully accomplish deficit reduction on their own (good luck with that, especially after the midterm elections), they will need to work with Republicans, independents, and moderate and conservative Democrats to achieve meaningful long-term deficit reductions. Third, some of the ideas presented by Bowles-Simpson on trimming $3.8 trillion in debt by 2020 are very good and should be embraced by Democrats.

Among other things, although the proposal calls for simplification of the tax code involving a reduction in overall rates, it also calls for eliminating many tax deductions and credits that mostly favor the affluent, thus preserving, even enhancing, the progressive nature of the tax structure. While the proposal to eliminate the mortgage interest deduction will prove politically infeasible, one alternative (based on a proposal by Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon and Republican Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire) would eliminate mortgage interest deductions on second homes and mortgages exceeding $500,000, while retaining the deduction for all other homeowners. This should receive serious consideration from Democrats. That someone should be allowed a tax deduction for mortgage interest on a second home in the Hamptons (or even Ocean City), while those who pay rent (generally the less affluent) receive no tax deduction, is unfair, regressive, and serves no rational policy interest. I understand that the real estate industry and its powerful lobbyists will be upset, but without some political courage and economic common sense from members of Congress, no progress on the deficit and budgetary reform will ever occur. As a Democrat, I am unwilling to allow my children’s future to rest on outdated assumptions and narrow special interests.

There are a number of other proposals in the Bowles-Simpson plan that liberals in particular should embrace. Reducing farm subsidies is long overdue, and the fifteen cent per gallon gasoline tax will simultaneously raise revenue and help reduce our dependence on foreign oil, encourage conservation and protect the environment. To its credit, the Bowles-Simpson proposal attempts to prevent cuts aimed at assisting low-income Americans and makes clear in principle that future budgets must protect the most vulnerable citizens.

Bowles-Simpson also refuses to treat the defense budget as sacrosanct and calls for tens of billions of dollars in cuts to unnecessary weapons programs and other wasteful military spending. Preserving our nation’s military strength does not require squandering billions of dollars on wasteful, largely useless Defense contracts and Pentagon programs. We spend almost as much on our military as the rest of the world combined. Including non-Pentagon, defense-related expenditures (e.g., Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security, interest attributable to past debt-financed defense outlays), total defense spending in 2010 falls somewhere between $880 billion and $1 trillion. Even by more traditional measures, total spending on the Pentagon, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, will exceed $700 billion. There is simply no way to get a handle on the deficit and national debt without ensuring, at a minimum, that we pay for these outlays, and better yet, reduce them. The Deficit Commission appears to recognize this.

My biggest problem with the Bowles-Simpson plan is its failure to take on the Bush tax cuts, which according to the CBPP account for $1.7 trillion in extra deficits from 2001 to 2008. If extended, these same tax cuts will add $3.4 trillion to the debt by 2019. This is no way to reduce the debt. Maintaining the Bush tax cuts, especially for those making more than $250,000 per year, is particularly galling, as eliminating only these tax cuts (which merely puts the top marginal rates back to 39% over the present 36%) would save us $700 billion over the next ten years.

I also am not satisfied with the manner in which Bowles-Simpson addresses the long-term budgetary concerns underlying Medicare and Medicaid (which make up the bulk of long-term deficit projections due to demographic changes and increasing life expectancies of the American population). But there will be plenty of time to debate these issues. For liberals to refrain from the discussion, to take their ball and go home, serves no purpose, and undermines our concern for the nation’s future.

Speaking to the nation from the Oval Office in 1979, President Jimmy Carter declared, "What you see too often in Washington . . . is a system of government that seems incapable of action. You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well-financed and powerful special interests. You see every extreme position defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath by one unyielding group or another." Are we really that selfish and short-sighted a nation that we cannot find ways to compromise and agree on deficit reduction? Although Carter lacked the leadership skills to overcome the paralysis of democracy that he described, his description is nevertheless as accurate now as it was in 1979. If the President and the Congress, Republicans and Democrats, cannot succeed where Carter failed, if they cannot summon the nation to embrace a sense of national purpose and to work for the common good on behalf of future generations, then they will be leaving a shameful legacy and forfeiting the right to govern.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Saying Goodbye to Camelot: Ted Sorensen (1928 - 2010)

Overlooked during the hype of the midterm elections was the loss of a great American. Theodore C. Sorensen, a clear-minded and eloquent speechwriter, lawyer, thinker, and speaker, died this past weekend. He was 82 years old. The substance behind John F. Kennedy, Sorensen was the single most important source of JFK’s words and actions during the final eleven years of Kennedy’s life. Unlike his friend and intellectual soul mate, who died at the hands of an assassin’s bullet nearly 47 years ago when the country still possessed an innocence of spirit, Sorensen lived a full and engaging life. Yet by his own account, the world came to a standstill on that dreadful November day, his grief surpassed perhaps only by Kennedy’s closest family members, a grief that would be re-lived five years later in the assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968. The Age of Innocence lost, America matured into a more complex, more divisive, more cynical country, which has only grown angrier through the years.

Kennedy called Sorensen his “intellectual blood bank” and, for the nearly half century following that tragic November day, Sorensen remained a loyal advocate of the Kennedy legacy and a vibrant link to the aura of Camelot that defined Kennedy’s term in office. He believed in good government, but not necessarily big government; a government that helps people and serves the national interest. He rejected the politics of pork and the pursuit of narrowly focused special interests. A product of the Great Depression with modest Midwestern roots, Sorensen believed in a compassionate society that embraces enlightened change and rejects the status quo where human ills and injustice go untreated. A proud liberal, Sorensen saw many of JFK’s best attributes in Barack Obama and he remained optimistic to the end that progressive ideals would ultimately triumph in America.

Like Kennedy, Sorensen believed that America must stand firm in its quest for freedom and democracy. But he did not believe that America should go it alone and he was dismayed with the unilateralism of the Bush administration and conservative calls for abolishing the United Nations, an admittedly imperfect institution, but one that remains our best hope for promoting peace and for addressing humanitarian crises in the world’s most troubled regions.

I never met Ted Sorensen, and a letter I wrote to him two years ago, after I read his memoirs, Counselor: Life at the Edge of History (Harper Collins, 2008), went unanswered. But I have always admired that Sorensen’s sharp wit and keen intellect accompanied a poetic embrace of language, and that he was a serious and unassuming man, with none of the Ivy League pedigree enjoyed by most of the Kennedy entourage. A bit of an outsider, he lacked Kennedy’s glamour and sense of style and was excluded from the Kennedy social set, where everyone seemed rich and fashionable. He maintained a permanently bookish air that almost single-handedly fed Kennedy’s appetite for policy memos, speeches, and legislative initiatives. Kennedy and Sorensen made an odd pair – the glamorous, wealthy politician from Massachusetts and the socially reclusive bookworm from Nebraska. But as Sorensen noted in Counselor, their lifestyle differences were offset by the closeness of their minds, for each possessed a lively sense of humor, a love of books, and a high-minded sense of the public interest.

The quintessential counselor, advisor, and confidante, Sorensen helped a young Kennedy develop into the mature leader he would become. From when he joined the new senator’s staff in 1953 as a 24 year-old University of Nebraska law school graduate, until Kennedy’s death in 1963, Sorensen was at the center of it all. The poet of Camelot, he helped write the most inspirational of Kennedy’s speeches. In July 1960, Sorensen drafted Kennedy’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, at which Kennedy declared that the United States was at “a turning point in history” involving a “New Frontier” of “uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.” Six months later, Sorensen and Kennedy collaborated on one of the best inaugural addresses in American history, a masterful, fourteen-minute speech that contained these memorable phrases:

• “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

• “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

• “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”

• “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”
Sorensen’s greatest contribution to history may have been the calm guidance and counsel he provided during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, when for thirteen days, the world stood on the brink of nuclear destruction. At Kennedy’s request, Sorensen drafted the famous letter to Nikita Khrushchev credited with persuading the Soviet Union to withdraw its missiles from Cuba and with averting war between the superpowers. The Khrushchev letter guaranteed, in exchange for immediate withdrawal of all Soviet missiles from Cuba, an end to the U.S. blockade and the withdrawal of American nuclear missiles from Turkey (aimed at the USSR). As Sorensen later explained, “Never had this country, this world, faced such great danger.” Helping to formulate a peaceful resolution was among his proudest lifetime achievements.

For students of speechwriting, however, it was Sorensen’s high-minded, inspirational prose from which Kennedy’s soaring rhetoric was born, and which helped make his presidency a lasting symbol of hope and idealism. Sorensen’s imprint was evident on Kennedy’s calls for self-sacrifice, civic engagement, and international peace. His eternal hope for a better world, his belief that the human race, however flawed, had the capacity to survive and even thrive amidst adversity, are themes that can be discerned from Kennedy’s speeches and statements in the early 1960’s.

My favorite Kennedy speech, for which Sorensen once again deserves much credit, was his commencement address at American University, which remains among the great foreign policy speeches of an American president. On that clear, sunny day in June 1963, Kennedy addressed “the most important topic on earth: peace.” At the height of the Cold War, this anti-Communist president called on Americans to see the humanity of the Soviet people, however repugnant may be the communist system. For only by recognizing that Soviet citizens were, like Americans, also people of substance, virtue, and accomplishment (in science, literature, and technology), could we find common interests and seek true peace.

. . . What kind of peace do I mean and what kind of a peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, and the kind that enables men and nations to grow, and to hope, and build a better life for their children -- not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women, not merely peace in our time but peace in all time. . . .

. . . Today the expenditure of billions of dollars every year on weapons acquired for the purpose of making sure we never need them is essential to the keeping of peace. But surely the acquisition of such idle stockpiles -- which can only destroy and never create -- is not the only . . . means of assuring peace. I speak of peace, therefore, as the necessary, rational end of rational men. I realize the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war, and frequently the words of the pursuers fall on deaf ears. But we have no more urgent task. . . .

. . . So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. And we are all mortal.
Kennedy’s address laid the groundwork for the Soviet Union to begin talks, six weeks later, on the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, a major milestone in U.S.-Soviet relations and in the movement for disarmament. Forty years later, Sorensen was invited to Rome to speak to a local foreign policy group. He asked on what subject and was told, “Tell us about the good America, when Kennedy was president.” Thinking back on the American University speech, Sorensen reflected upon “an America admired for its values, respected for its principles, not feared for its might or resented for its success; an America that led by listening, worked with the rest of the world, and respected international law; an America that stood for peace, not one that started wars. That was America when Kennedy was president.”

Sorensen was a master at his craft. Today, presidents and candidates utilize entire teams of speechwriters, and most speeches are a hodgepodge of policy proposals and appeals to varying demographics and interests. When Sorensen worked for JFK, the effort was more intimate and collaborative, the results unmatched in modern political rhetoric. A speech should inspire, teach, and lead. Kennedy was masterful at this, and he could not have done it without Sorensen, who remained loyal and devoted to his friend and colleague until his dying day. Ted Sorensen having been laid to rest, it is fair to say that they don’t make speechwriters like they used to.

Looking back on Kennedy’s speeches and reflecting upon Sorensen’s life, it is hard not to be pained at what might have been had Kennedy lived to serve a second term. Sorensen lived a distinguished life and continued to provide advice to Kennedy’s younger brothers. He became an accomplished international lawyer, counseling the likes of Nelson Mandela and Anwar Sadat, and he remained always an advocate for peace and progressive ideals. But the pain of November 1963 never healed. “I do not know whether I have ever fully recovered from John F. Kennedy’s death,” he wrote in his memoirs. “Time passed. Love and laughter helped. But the deep sadness of that time remained, only to be reinforced five years later by the murder of his brother Robert. Those two senseless tragedies robbed me of my future.” Decades later, on the twilight of his life, the pain remained. “Deep in my soul, I have not stopped weeping, whenever those events are recalled.”

America lost its soul with the deaths of John and Robert Kennedy. With the death of Ted Sorensen, we have lost part of our idealism. We live now in a less poetic, less graceful time.