The president says he is going to spend the first few months of his second term traveling the country attacking Republicans.
The Republican members of Congress had said they were going to spend the beginning of the new Congress taking a hostage they could not shoot, the debt ceiling, and thus continue on their now well-worn path of self-immolation. A confrontation on that issue still looms.
All this leads one to ask: Isn’t there a better way? The answer, of course, is yes.
The core problem is that we are trying to learn how to deal with a government that arose in a time of plenty — when our nation had its largest generation in history, the baby boom generation, engaged in the work force. Now, that generation is moving out of the workforce and into the role of the recipient.
We are taking 70 million people who made up the most productive and wealth-generating group in the nation’s history, and moving them from pulling the wagon to being in the wagon. This transfer, coupled with the massive explosion in the possibilities and costs of healthcare, has created an untenable fiscal situation.
The president seems to have concluded that he does not need to come up with substantive policies to address this looming crisis so long as he just creates an atmosphere of class warfare, claims all things can be cured by raising taxes on a small percentage of Americans and blames the Republicans for failing to agree to abdicate to this policy.
The Republicans have responded by claiming that spending is the sole villain causing our fiscal crisis. They seek to force reductions in spending by threatening actions that in the end they cannot take, such as going over the fiscal cliff or defaulting on the nation’s debt obligations. Actually taking such actions would — quite rightly — destroy the party’s credibility in the eyes of most Americans by doing fundamental harm to the future of the country they claim to want to protect.
There is a path forward. It is just not either of the ones that the primary players have identified. It is a path that does not require brinkmanship governance; nor does it require either side to sacrifice its core beliefs.
The president wants to push forward with his signature program on healthcare, and raise revenues to fund it. He also wants to aggressively use government to seek redress for what he and his cadre of Harvard reformers believe to be the inherently unjust nature of many aspects of our nation.
Republicans want to bring down the cost of government and put us on a path to fiscal solvency by restraining spending. They also want government to be much less intrusive in the day-to-day lives of Americans.
The latter goals of the two parties rather aggressively diverge. They can and will continue to be points of great contention. But they are not at the core of our deficit and debt problem.
It is the first part of the goals of the two parties that can be made to overlap. We can get this debt and deficit down through an agreed path that both parties should be able to live with.
In its simplest terms it involves an agreement to adjust entitlements through changes that do not result in near-term impacts of great significance — but which lead to dramatic long-term changes that make them affordable for the country and the next generation which has to pay for them.
Taking this long-view approach would allow the parties to leap over the short-term fights regarding Obamacare and lock in place policies that will ultimately lead to a fundamental correction in course.
The second part of the agreement is an all-out commitment to produce fundamental tax reform. The template for this is already in place, via the Simpson-Bowles Commission. It gives both sides what they need in a dramatic and effective way: Much lower rates for Republicans and progressivity for Democrats. Such an approach would, in all likelihood, also produce a lot more revenue through growth and the elimination of special deductions and exemptions.
Both sides could back this approach. Instead of the president hitting the campaign trail and the Republicans picking procedural battles, the two sides could actually work together and make the country work too.
Judd Gregg is a former governor and three-term senator from New Hampshire who served as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and as ranking member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Foreign Operations. He also is an international adviser to Goldman Sachs.