A whole lot of Democrats and independents were probably delighted to hear President Barack Obama demonstrate a little more resolve in the deficit reduction debate today. In unveiling his $3 billion proposal to reduce federal debt over the next decade through both spending cuts and tax increases, the president also outlined some core principles — among them that he won't support any measure that requires the middle class and poor to do all the sacrificing in order to preserve tax loopholes and other advantages for the rich.
Such tough talk was clearly a reaction to last week's speech by House Speaker John A. Boehner who, after touting bipartisanship and lashing out against the "my-way-or-the-highway" philosophy, warned the congressional "super committee" not to raise taxes. Mr. Boehner said "tax increases destroy jobs" and that the House-Senate panel formed to find a compromise on deficit reduction should be focused on job creation.
Clearly, the House speaker may be against absolutism but not in the defense of the wealthy. When it comes to taxes, Mr. Boehner shows no signs of budging one iota — a position that merely assures that Washington will be stuck in the same gridlock that just a matter of months ago caused the country's credit rating to fall. It has also helped to depress consumer confidence and could make the entire super committee exercise a colossal waste of time.
Do Republicans really want to be so dead-set against a balanced approach to paying the bills? It's hard to believe that's what a majority of Americans want. For one, it guarantees that the deficit problem won't be addressed (as designated deficit hawks Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles have repeatedly testified, only a combination of spending cuts and higher taxes can accomplish that), but it also shows Republicans to be siding with powerful corporations against the public interest.
Nothing demonstrates this better than the GOP response in recent days to the so-called Buffett Rule, Mr. Obama's proposal to amend the income tax code so that millionaires will pay at a tax rate that is at least comparable to what middle-class Americans must pay. That example of shared sacrifice should be seen as a minimal step in bringing the nation's finances back in order. But instead, Republicans are trotting out the well-worn "class warfare" protests, claiming, as House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan did on Sunday, that the Buffett rule serves only to stifle job creation.
Rich or poor, nobody likes to pay more in taxes. That's a given. But cutting the deficit (at least once one gets past the always popular if relatively paltry choice of eliminating waste, fraud and abuse) is only about choosing from among unpleasant alternatives. Would it really be better to deny medical treatment to the elderly? Allow the nation's roads and bridges to decay? Embrace lower school standards? One doesn't achieve $3 trillion in spending cuts without taking these or similarly painful steps.
Much of what the president is proposing would simply cause a return to tax rates that existed when Bill Clinton was president and the country enjoyed not only a balanced federal budget but one of the greatest periods of economic growth and job creation in history. That hardly seems like a prescription for plunging the nation back into recession.
Mr. Ryan and others of his party claim Mr. Obama is playing politics with the Buffett Rule. And certainly, it's safe to assume that Democrats prefer talk of soaking the rich before they want to hear about denying basic services to the working class. But the GOP is playing the same game in reverse, adhering to its no-new-tax pledge to satisfy the cravings of its tea party loyalists.
President Obama's plan is far from the final word on how best to trim the long-term deficit. Nor would we suggest the president's record on deficit reduction has been particularly impressive to this point. Better that some of these specifics had been offered last January, or that he had included a bolder vision of how the country might reform its wretchedly convoluted and antiquated tax code. But on the core values — of shared sacrifice and preserving basic health care services that have been available for generations — we think he's right to stand firm and has the majority of Americans in his corner.