The Failure of Peterson-ism
Why Peter Peterson and 20 years of anti-deficit campaigns have barely moved the needle.
There were less gimmicky ideas. Every year, starting in 2010, the Peterson Foundation gathered powerful Washingtonians for “fiscal summits.” Starting in 2011, it appealed to left-right think tanks to come up with long-term budget plans. They diverged wildly, as you’d expect when you ask the Roosevelt Institute and the Heritage Foundation to independently solve the same problem. But in its 2011 progress report—one of the most deliriously optimistic documents of this kind—the Peterson Foundation pointed out that “their plans showed a remarkable consensus on several key priorities,” and that the ball had thus been moved downfield.
Whether that makes any sense whatsoever, you can appreciate how much it cost. According to Ryan Grim and Paul Blumenthal, Peterson’s four-year commitment to his new foundation totaled $458 million. They made those calculations before this summer, when two new Peterson-aided groups emerged—Fix the Debt and The Can Kicks Back. The latter group was actually co-founded by a veteran of the David Walker presidential campaign. The former rebooted the Concord Coalition model by signing up Democrats, like former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, to make common cause with 80 CEOs.
The new-new deficit hawk campaigns managed to spook liberals anew. The Fix the Debt campaign became an immediate presence on cable news, set up meetings with the president, and scheduled a post-election conference—chaired by Maya MacGuineas. But when, exactly, was one of these “education” campaigns supposed to pay off? This August, nearly 20 years after that blockbuster Greenberg-Quinlan poll, the Associated Press-GfK poll asked voters how they preferred to fund Social Security. Did they want a benefit cut or a tax hike? The tax hike won out, 53 to 36 percent.
I sat in on Fix the Debt’s D.C. conference last week. Narrowly, I’d missed the main news of the day—a group of liberal protesters heckled the first speaker, Sen. Rob Portman, until he paused his speech to talk with them about Social Security cuts. But I did find David Walker, who quickly handed me a gift—a mocked-up $10 million bill, with Andrew Jackson’s face on the front. It advertised his own deficit hawk group, the Comeback America Initiative. I asked Walker whether more panels and forums were actually moving the needle for his preferred reforms.*
“It serves to reinforce how a range of business leaders and others think it’s vitally important,” he said. “Yes, you need a broader coalition, but it’s great that business leaders are back in the game. They were largely missing in action for a number of years. It’s fantastic that they’re back in the game!”
Walker sat down as Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the finance committee, rose to give his speech. Half of the text consisted of football analogies. The other half reiterated the Democrats’ desire to raise the top tax rate and raise the debt limit with no strings—and to defend entitlements by attacking health care costs, not payouts. “Shifting costs to seniors is not the solution,” said Baucus. It sounded like Peterson et al had constructed a Trojan horse, then failed to pay attention as the Greeks piled inside.
During a break, I went to grab water at the conference’s breakfast table. Also grabbing a water, bypassing the complimentary coffee cake, was Alice Rivlin. The former OMB director, a veteran of the Obama era’s major fiscal task forces, wanted to know whether I’d seen the protests.
“The problem is that the liberal groups think this is a plot against them, that someone’s going to cannibalize Medicare tomorrow,” she said. “That’s just not part of the conversation.” I asked her whether this umpteenth meeting of the minds was going to help at all. “There’s been an awful lot of panels,” she laughed, “and I feel like I’ve been on all of ‘em.”
Correction, Dec. 11, 2012: This article originally misidentified the Comeback America Initiative as Keeping America Great, which is the group's slogan. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.