Super Dupes

With the Congressional Super Committee required to produce a bipartisan budget-cutting plan by November 23, the best possible outcome would be for the committee to collapse of its own weight.

With no deal, automatic cuts would kick in beginning in 2013. Those budget cuts would be excessive, but that question could—and will—be reopened after the election. And in the meantime, $4 trillion in Bush tax cuts will expire, solving most of the deficit problem.

If Democrats win, it’s all up for grabs. If Republicans win, the cuts will be even deeper.

The 2012 election will be a referendum on whether we want growth or austerity, and whether we want tax fairness.

For now, the six Republicans on the Super Committee, predictably, want all of the budget savings to be on the spending side and are adamantly opposed to any tax increases. On Thursday, 33 Senate Republicans sent a letter to their colleagues on the committee warning them not to support any form of tax increase.

What’s bizarre, however, is how bad the Democrats’ proposals are. Erskine Bowles, the investment banker and nominal Democrat on the late Bowles-Simpson Commission, testifying before the committee Tuesday, proposed $600 billion in Medicare and Medicaid cuts, deeper cuts even than those in Speaker John Boehner’s final offer to President Obama just before the bipartisan budget deal collapsed last summer.

A majority of Democrats on the committee have put forth a proposal in the same spirit, one that is bad economics and worse politics. It would cut Medicare by $400 billion, and Medicaid by $75 billion. It raises less in new revenue than the majority plan put forth by the Bowles-Simpson Commission. It even cuts $75 billion from Social Security by tinkering with the cost-of-living adjustment.

What’s going on here? While President Obama has moved on, thankfully, to emphasize job creation and has pledged to defend Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, a majority of Democrats on the committee are still stuck in a time warp, in which deficit reduction and budget cutting take priority over promoting a recovery and the illusion of bipartisanship lives on.

These Democrats include supposed liberals such as Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, who would give away the store in his eagerness to get a bipartisan deal (appoint this man secretary of state—maybe Elizabeth Warren can run for both Massachusetts seats).

What is saving these craven Democrats from themselves is Republican intransigence on tax increases. It’s not clear whether these Dems are just posturing, knowing that their Republican counterparts will no accept a deal that includes new taxes on millionaires. It’s also not clear what role the White House is playing. With Obama pledged to defend Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, you would think the president would be urging the Super-Committee Democrats to hang tough on these popular programs.

If the committee were to make a deal, there would be immense pressure on both Congress and the White House to go along with it.

But it would be far better for the committee to collapse and for the Democrats to head into the election pledging to put jobs over austerity and not to balance the budget on the backs of those who depend on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

There is now a nice, clear, bright line on these issues. Obama defends these core social-insurance programs. Republicans would shred them. Obama would tax millionaires to fund jobs and infrastructure programs rather than supporting deeper cuts. At least two-thirds of Americans share these views.

But a majority of Democrats on the Super Committee would blur these lines.

Obama made the disastrous error of misjudging how his Affordable Care Act would spook the senior vote, by diverting Medicare funds. The over-65 set turned against him and cost Democrats dozens of House seats in the 2010 midterm.

Democrats carried the senior vote by 7 points in 2008. But in 2010, they lost among seniors by a lethal 21 points. Democrats had better not make that mistake again.

This time, Obama has both the policy and the politics right. He has learned the bitter lesson that trying to appease obstructionist Republicans is a fool’s errand. Democrats on the Super Committee should stop playing the fool.

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