Conservatives Must Lead on the Deficit

On the radio today with David Gergen and Reihan Salam, I took the view that it makes no sense to criticize the president for lack of leadership on the long-term fiscal crunch. Whatever you think of its merits, White House has laid out a budget proposal. Congressional Republicans say that it makes taxes too high and the deficit too large, but they’ve yet to produce a lower-tax/lower-deficit alternative for us to compare it to. Until they do, I don’t really see what there is to talk about.

What’s more, I made the point that the main sticking point is that Republicans simply refuse to acknowledge that revenue as a share of GDP needs to go higher than it was at the end of the Bush years. The White House concedes in principle at least that Social Security and Medicare spending need to go lower than they’re currently projected to. What needs to happen next is for the GOP to concede in principle that revenue needs to go higher. Reihan said Republicans would certainly oppose any increase in tax rates but might agree to close some tax loopholes. That’s an interesting idea, but it seems to be off the table:

Republican leaders in the Senate and House will not agree to tax increases in the guise of reform measures, according to a prominent conservative advocate for lower taxes. Conservatives have grown increasingly worried that Republicans in Congress may accept a tax hike as part of a broader deal to reduce discretionary and entitlement spending. But Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) have pledged to Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) president Grover Norquist they will not support any deficit reduction package that increases taxes.

Under these circumstances, there’s nothing to negotiate about and nothing presidential leadership can achieve. If Republican leaders don’t want to agree to any revenue increases, that’s their prerogative, but willingness to compromise on revenue is the sine qua non of a bipartisan deal. Absent that willingness, there neither can nor will be a bipartisan deal so there’s nothing for the president to say or do.

The real question then becomes: When will the Republicans produce a budget proposal? We’ve seen the White House proposal. Do Republicans have an alternative proposal that makes the deficit lower consistent with their position on taxes? If they do, I’d like to see them write it down on paper so we can talk about it.