Pete Peterson's unserious campaign to get America to think seriously about the national debt.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 9 2010 7:15 PM

The Peterson Principle

Pete Peterson's unserious campaign to get America to think seriously about the national debt.

Glenn Beck. Click image to expand.
Glenn Beck.

You win, Pete Peterson. I'm writing about you. The $6 million you're spending on your latest campaign will not be wasted. You are getting Media Attention. This piece can be printed out and put in a binder, which can then be used to gain further Media Attention.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

I can't ignore this campaign because it's so obvious and pandering. It is called "OweNo," with the "o" in "no" actually designed as red "no" symbol, as in "No smoking" or "No shirts, No shoes, No service." It's ostensibly a vehicle for the presidential campaign of Hugh Jidette, whose name is supposed to (but doesn't quite) sound like "huge debt," who promises to spend lots of money without raising taxes, and who launched his campaign to a cheering crowd of fellow actors who really needed the work.

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And so it's a ploy to promote the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which is scheduled to release its recommendations for a long-term debt reduction plan by Dec. 1. We are at "a unique, historic moment in American politics," Peterson said today. "I heard the voters say, enough is enough," said Peterson. "Enough of the bluffing. Enough of the meaningless generalities that obscure more than they reveal."

What is OweNo about, if not generalities? Sure, discussing the national debt is more serious than, say, discussing the possible career moves of South Carolina stunt candidate Alvin Greene. But the great debt debate has been defined by big, terrifying numbers and the old reliable fear of foreigners overtaking the United States. In one of the phony ads OweNo cut for "Jidette," for example, a worried-looking woman says that "foreign lenders" have our money. How to get it back? Beat up this strawman!

Peterson is succeeding in scaring liberals with this stuff, and succeeding in the more important task of giving the small number of Democrats who want entitlement cuts some cover. At the launch Evan Bayh of Indiana, whose sense of responsibility did not prevent him from retiring from the Senate this year, contemplated the Jidette ads and mused, "The election a week ago today would have been a lot more edifying if we had more commercials like that than the ones running in the various states." And he briefly ignored Peterson's advice about generalities to muse a little about the debt.

"It really is an existential threat to our country," said Bayh. "It's important to our very freedom. It is impossible for a country to be head over heels in debt and yet retain its independence and freedom of action."

If Peterson can't get politicians to be specific about spending cuts at his own Potemkin campaign event, when can he? Maybe when the commission issues its report he can push the political consensus toward entitlement cuts. But how is yet another round of generic bellyaching about the debt likely to make that happen?

Every election cycle—and yes, we are now in the 2012 election cycle—is cursed with organizations like this. They try to manufacture the conventional wisdom by being bland and talking about the need for politicians to start doing important things, without ever saying what those things are.

In the 2008 cycle, the serious organizations that just wanted dialogue were mostly liberal-leaning groups. A coalition that included the AARP, SEIU, and Business Roundtable ran Divided We Fail; the SEIU managed the Health Care for America Now project. Both organizations made their presence felt wherever they knew politicians would be.

And both were gloriously, thoroughly bland. They favored solutions! They favored compromise! But Divided We Fail, especially, campaigned on ideas, not outcomes. Health Care for America Now had a set of 10 principles that candidates were encouraged to endorse, which is more than Peterson's stunt campaign is asking. The theory behind both these efforts was to put on acts bland and subtle enough that the political class eventually got behind the liberal policies they really supported.

"It was a bank shot," explained Eliseo Medina, secretary-treasurer of the SEIU, one of the players in both of 2008's nebulous liberal groups. "You play pool, right? Sometimes you don't hit something directly—that's not the best way to get what you want. You educate the public and urge people to act, and then the groups that are more oriented toward the policy goals can act. If you get bogged down in details you may never get there."

The bland, do-something approach did get the liberals' big priority—health care—into the discussion. The lack of real policy demands came back to haunt them. Once the health care debate began, it was the accounts of the Congressional Budget Office and the activists with specific demands and problems—cost, mandates, premium levels—that controlled a debate that Democrats barely won. "It was a success that we managed to get health care reform," said Medina, "as imperfect as it is."

But that success cost Democrats a lot of blood. Setting up health care as an issue that good people could come together on gained the Democrats nothing; it was an issue they needed to argue the finest points on.

The same goes for Peterson and debt. The people who've actually proposed unpleasant solutions for cutting the deficit and paying back the debt have always defined the debate. Ross Perot's 1992 presidential campaign, the high point of debt fear-mongering, was a cavalcade of charts and tax increases and spending cuts. Glenn Beck's current information campaign, widely misunderstood by liberals, is laying the groundwork for hard cuts to entitlement spending. He knows, and Perot knew, that no one wins this argument by simply calling for a debate. The winner shifts the Overton Window. The winner makes it possible to discuss politically painful solutions.

The losers? If history is any guide, they're the ones who team up with Evan Bayh.

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