Bowles and Simpson Chase the Center

Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

In any relationship, the party that’s more willing to walk away has more leverage. The unveiling of Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson’s latest version of a deficit reduction plan is a brutal reminder of just where this leverage has lain. In 2010, Bowles and Simpson proposed a ratio of about a dollar and a half of spending cuts for every dollar of higher revenue. The new plan has a ratio of about three-to-one.

The new plan is almost surely not going to pass. Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson and an anonymous Republican in Congress both say that agreeing to increase revenue in any form would make House Republican leaders lose their jobs. If the new Bowles-Simpson plan has any value, it is as a marker in the sheer power of Republican obstinacy. After all, since the first Bowles-Simpson plan came out, President Obama campaigned centrally on raising taxes on the rich as part of a debt-reduction plan and won a surprisingly comfortable reelection. And yet the center of the budget debate has moved sharply rightward. The distance between the first and second versions of Bowles-Simpson are an almost mathematical tabulation of the unequal interest the two parties have in compromising.

Figures like Bowles and Simpson, and the many promoters thereof, derive their legitimacy from their “bipartisanship,” which they understand as a studious insistence that both parties are equally to blame for any failure to agree to reduce the deficit. In fact, one party wants to make a compromise and the other doesn’t. Precisely for that reason, the party that doesn’t has gained a progressively stronger hand. But precisely because it is “partisan” to describe this reality, it has paid a low political cost in order to gain this leverage.

If you believe that long-term deficit reduction is absolutely necessary, and that the component of such a plan matters less than getting one passed at all, one can justify this sort of compromise, however fundamentally unfair it may be. The trouble is that justification of compromise as necessary easily slips into a veneration of the compromise as virtuous. The original Bowles-Simpson plan was endlessly touted not as a halfway point between parties but as the epitome of sensible centrist policymaking.

Not long ago, Emory University president James Wagner wrote what he probably thought was a dull paean to the virtues of compromise that would regurgitate the same inoffensive sentiments uttered on Sunday talk shows and newspaper editorials across the land. As it turned out, Wagner made the terrible error of trying to cite a historical precedent, and in so doing turned his bland little note into what is surely the most disastrous president’s column ever written in a University alumni magazine:

One instance of constitutional compromise was the agreement to count three-fifths of the slave population for purposes of state representation in Congress. Southern delegates wanted to count the whole slave population, which would have given the South greater influence over national policy. Northern delegates argued that slaves should not be counted at all, because they had no vote. As the price for achieving the ultimate aim of the Constitution—“to form a more perfect union”—the two sides compromised on this immediate issue of how to count slaves in the new nation. Pragmatic half-victories kept in view the higher aspiration of drawing the country more closely together.

Some might suggest that the constitutional compromise reached for the lowest common denominator—for the barest minimum value on which both sides could agree. I rather think something different happened. Both sides found a way to temper ideology and continue working toward the highest aspiration they both shared—the aspiration to form a more perfect union.

What Wagner had done here was take a parody of his own reasoning and use it as actual reasoning. As a narrow matter, the three-fifths compromise merely delayed the underlying tension over the representation of slave states within the Union. (The question ultimately had to be settled 70 years later with the intercession of some fairly unpleasant events, including the burning to the ground of Wagner’s city.) But the larger problem was his bland, even-handed condemnation of the “ideology” of the two sides and its implicit assumption that the midpoint between them constituted a reasonable middle ground. (Wagner did hastily append a note clarifying his philosophical agreement with the crazy left-wingers who opposed giving slave states extra representation.)

The pundits who spent the last two years touting Bowles-Simpson as a thoughtful approach to fiscal policy ought to, by right, conclude that the new Bowles-Simpson plan is too conservative. Still worth passing, one could argue, but distinctly to the right of what all right-thinking people defined as the center. They won’t do that, because the easiest assumption to make is that the midpoint between the two parties is the definition of moderation. As Cokie Roberts once explained her way of thinking:

I think that often where I am is just in the middle. The middle is often the commonsensical place to be. The notion that one side is right and one side is wrong is generally, as one finds in life, not the case.

The trouble with this method of locating sensible principles is that, when the center changes, your principles have to change too. Two years later you can wind up looking ridiculous. Two-hundred years later, even more so.