I agree with some of the points Ross Douthat makes about the policy response to the economic crisis, but this point manages to forget about one of America’s two political parties:
Finally, instead of pivoting from the Recovery Act to deficits and entitlement reform, the Democratic majority spent all of its post-stimulus political capital trying to push both a costly new health care entitlement and a cap-and-trade bill through Congress. Both policies were advertised, intermittently, as deficit reduction, but neither came close to addressing the real long-term drivers of the nation’s debt. And they left Congressional Democrats to campaign for re-election in 2010 as the custodians of record deficits as well as sky-high unemployment.
We can debate what coming “close” to “addressing the real long-term drivers of the nation’s debt” would be, but clearly the Affordable Care Act is all about addressing the health care system, which is in fact the main long-term driver of the nation’s debt. The bill was “intermittently” advertised as deficit reduction because the bill does, in fact, reduce the deficit. It’s also true that the bill doesn’t come close to solving the long-term health care costs challenge. But it certainly addresses it.
If you’re interested in the question of why the 111th Congress’ main effort to address this problem doesn’t come closer to solving it, you need to look at the Republicans and especially their caucus in the Senate. The filibuster rule and the Democrats’ reluctance to push the health care bill through with reconciliation gave them a ton of leverage over the process. It was leverage that they, or any subset of them, could have used at any time to try to secure more robust deficit reduction measures. But they chose, individually and collectively, not to use that leverage in that way. When Olympia Snowe briefly made herself willing to vote for a universal health care bill if Max Baucus would modify it some concrete ways, he leapt at the chance to win her support. They chose, individually and collectively, to simply try their best to stop the bill from passing. Had they succeeded, we’d be in an even worse long-term position than we are now. Had they used their leverage in a more constructive way, we’d be in a much better position. What’s more, their effort at obstructionism ultimately failed to block the bill. This decision has attracted extremely little second-guessing or criticism from conservatives inside or outside of government, presumably because people are happy with the subsequent electoral victory of Republicans in November 2010. Then during the lame duck session, Senate Republicans used their leverage to secure deficit increasing tax increases. Then we moved into the debt ceiling fight where President Obama was plainly desperate to secure some kind of bipartisan agreement on long-term deficit reduction, and House Republicans said “no.”
It keeps on being the case that we don’t have more deficit reduction because Republicans aren’t willing to make the kind of deals that would have led to more deficit reduction. Maybe you think they’re making the right calls. Maybe this strategy is well-designed to set the table for electoral victory in 2012, after which Senate Republicans will enact something akin to the Paul Ryan Medicare repeal plan via reconciliation and make bipartisan compromise unnecessary. But if the subject you’re interested in is the past few years of American politics, compromise has been necessary and the Republican strategy of refusing to make deficit-reduction a priority in negotiations has been the operational barrier to deficit reduction.