A matter of priorities

Rick Holmes

I don’t often agree with Charles Krauthammer, but I appreciate his ability to articulate the conventional wisdom that reigns over on the right side of the Beltway political spectrum.  And, thanks to a syndication purchase agreement negotiated by our corporate parents, I can now run Krauthammer on the MWDN opinion pages, along with a bunch of other Washington Post writers I also like:  E.J. Dionne, Kathleen Parker, George Will, Dana Milbank and Eugene Robinson (the links will take you to some of their recent contributions).

One of the themes I see in Krauthammer’s column, though hidden between the lines, is an assumption that animates much of what I hear from Republicans and conservative commentators, especially those based in Washington.  To them nothing – NOTHING! – is more important than excessive federal spending and the national debt.  They have become so convinced of this — with a lot of encouragement from Pete Peterson’s debt-is-all propaganda machine — that they seem to think it goes without saying.   Mitch McConnell’s vision of the next four years is nothing but trench warfare over the federal budget. The tea partiers act like cutting spending is priority number one and there is no priority number two.

Fine, but you know what? To President Obama, balancing the budget isn’t priority number one.  He hasn’t bought into this assumption that the federal debt is an existential crisis that will bankrupt our grandchildren unless we radically slash the size and scope of government and break the promises the government has made for generations. To Obama, the first domestic priority is making the economy healthy enough to produce the jobs we need in the short-term.  His second priority is building the long-term economy, so the country can thrive in an ever-more competitive world for generations to come.

I don’t think federal fiscal policy is the top priority for ordinary Americans either, as last year’s campaigns and results show. I’m enough of a creature of conventional wisdom to think Obama should have included a stronger deficit-reduction plank in his platform and talked about it more in the campaign.  I still hope he’ll put a serious tax reform/spending cuts/entitlement reform proposal on the table when he puts forward a budget. It’s part of managing the store, and he could take some talking points away from the opposition, which has been long on the rhetoric of spending cuts but woefully short of details.

But the deficit is a Beltway obsession, not the stuff of dinner table conversations in American homes.  Obama understands that, which is why he’d like to make a grand bargain on the budget within the next few months so he can get on to other things — specifically immigration reform, education, energy and environmental policy, infrastructure investments and gun control.  Republicans are obsessed with the budget, so much so that they have no interest in engaging any of those other issues and would just as soon do nothing but fight over shrinking government from now until the next election, and then until the election after that.  It’s a stark difference in outlook which seems likely to keep the nation careening from cliff to cliff for the foreseeable future.