Obama's Achilles' heel.

The history behind current events.
Jan. 29 2010 5:12 PM

Obama's Achilles' Heel

What the deficit-commission idea says about his politics.

The soaring campaign-trail rhetoric of change—to which Barack Obama returned this week, as if it were an old girlfriend, in his State of the Union address—has always rested on a faith in transcending factional interests. Since the 19th-century Mugwumps and the early-20th-century Progressives, reformers have placed hopes for building a new consensus in the high-minded invocation of a common good. Self-interested and partisan jockeying for advantage, they insist, corrupts Washington politics and impedes progress.

But constructing an environment free from those pressures of self-interest has always proved to be the Achilles' heel of this political outlook. In a campaign speech—or in a campaign book like The Audacity of Hope—calls to let go of partisan attachments in favor of unifying compromises can easily flourish. But in the halls of Congress, or in the ever-more partisan news media, devotion to interest or ideology invariably reasserts itself and renders the middle ground treacherous.

In his State of the Union speech, Obama nonetheless stated his intent to try to build just such an environment—a politics-free zone in which technocrats and statesmen could tackle a major policy problem without fear of electoral repercussions. Specifically, he said he would issue an executive order creating "a bipartisan fiscal commission, modeled on a proposal by Republican Judd Gregg and Democrat Kent Conrad," focused especially on restraining "the cost of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security."

Pundits like to recall the 1982-83 Social Security Commission, led by Alan Greenspan, that's believed to have saved the retirement insurance program from bankruptcy. But that historical example is misleading. Not only did the Greenspan commission do less than is commonly supposed, as Jackie Calmes of the New York Times recently wrote; it's also an atypical case, an exception that proves the rule. A more representative example of the bipartisan deficit-reduction commission is the once-hyped, now-forgotten National Economic Commission—a Reagan/Bush-era venture that promised but failed to address what was then seen as a paramount and crippling economic issue. (Its history was first recounted in an article in the Washington Post in October 1992 by Bob Woodward, with assistance from this writer, then a cub reporter.)

When Ronald Reagan's experiment in supply-side economics—cutting taxes, raising defense spending, and expecting federal revenues to surge—went awry, unprecedented budget deficits threatened to cripple the American economy. (Some economists thought the 1987 stock market crash, at the time seen as calamitous, occurred because deficits had grown untenable.) Inspired by the 1983 Greenspan Commission, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo began talking up the idea of a panel that could give politicians the needed cover to do what he said they all privately acknowledged had to be done: cutting defense spending, Medicare, and Social Security while raising taxes. One convert across the aisle was Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole—known as a lifelong deficit hawk until his campaign-year embrace of supply-side economics in 1996—who provided for the commission's creation in a budget bill that Reagan signed during his last year in office.

The commission comprised the usual bipartisan complement of centrist eminences, including Felix Rohatyn of Lazard Freres, Lee Iacocca of Chrysler, Bob Strauss of Akin Gump, Sens. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Pete Domenici (for whom a seat on every deficit-reduction commission seems to be permanently reserved). In a short time span, virtually all the members agreed to yield on some areas where their party or ideological interests normally resisted: Democrats capitulated on trimming Social Security, Republicans on shaving defense outlays. "It was also clear that to strike a political compact would require some taxes," said commission member Donald Rumsfeld, then a relatively uncontroversial figure presumed to be retired from government service. The trick was they all had to hang together. If a few members rejected the consensus, it would leave anyone who stuck to the compromise—especially the elected officials—vulnerable.

But politics doomed the commission. George H.W. Bush had pledged "no new taxes" in order to get elected in 1988, and his opportunistic vow forced him to oppose the consensus plan. During the winter of 1988, as Bush planned to enter the White House, his aides Nicholas Brady and Richard Darman made common cause with Strauss and Drew Lewis, the commission chairmen. The two Washington panjandrums even appeared on Meet the Press to ratchet up the pressure, with Strauss noting that "if we had 48 hours … we could pretty well agree on a program right now."

Yet despite lobbying from his aides—and from his old friend from Skull and Bones, Thomas "Lud" Ashley, a commission member—Bush could not see his way clear toward breaking his anti-tax pledge even before his presidency began. And the more the incoming administration stressed its opposition, the more commission Democrats like Moynihan balked at climbing out on a limb—since it now seemed likely, as Strauss noted, to be sawed off. A plan to have the commission delay its report a year, to allow Bush a decent interval before flip-flopping, was also nixed by the White House. In a few months, the commission's consensus unraveled and the panel issued two predictable partisan reports.

In retrospect, the commission might have saved Bush's presidency. Bush broke his pledge anyway, in 1990, incurring lasting enmity from the hard right and driving many Republicans in 1992 to vote for independent Ross Perot, a deficit hawk, or even for Bill Clinton. Had Bush reneged on his anti-tax pledge and taken a hit at the very beginning, he might have regained some standing with the Republican base before the 1992 election. Equally important, he might have enjoyed a stronger economy in 1992, depriving Clinton of his most potent argument against the incumbent—that he wasn't active enough in addressing middle-class Americans' hardships.

But if one lesson of the National Economic Commission is that presidential leadership can make or break such panels, the corollary is more disheartening: that in the normal course of events, such commissions do nothing to attain the goals for which they're created. As Obama noted in his State of the Union speech, they usually wind up being "Washington gimmicks that let us pretend we solved a problem." The reason isn't just the kind of political cravenness that many people attributed to the elder Bush. More fundamentally, the conceit that politics can be removed from the equation is an illusion.

Getting consensus among political players with electoral constituencies to answer to is hard enough. Even stacking a commission with centrists who revere compromise, the Washington conventional wisdom, and the economic analysis that considers the federal deficit an urgent problem won't remove the pressures on elected officials or interest-group spokesmen to cling to the positions of the blocs they represent. And should such a commission manage to reach a delicate consensus anyway, that agreement still has to be vetted in the political arena, where it's likely to collapse. All it takes is a president or a few congressional leaders challenging the deal's fairness for other potential adherents to flee.

Despite his fondness for the Mugwump or Progressive rhetoric of transcending differences in the name of a common good, Obama probably knows that the idea of getting a commission to do what politicians otherwise won't do is—inescapably—a gimmick. Lasting legislation can only be hammered out through the messy process of negotiation, deal-making, and horse-trading, or through sheer partisan determination. This reality has always posed the most intractable challenges to Obama's worldview—challenges with which he has never, as candidate or as president, sufficiently reckoned: In the end, you can't take the politics out of politics.

David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.