Stories by Steve Bell

Steve Bell is former Staff Director of the Senate Budget Committee, a former managing director at Salomon Brothers, and now Senior Director on Economic Policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

Obama and GOP Punt
on Deficit Cuts

February 14th, 2011 at 11:46 am 45 Comments

Pathetic.

Both the President’s budget submission today and the House Republican approach to deficit reduction fail to achieve even a modicum of debt stabilization, either in the short run or the long run.

The famed economic historian, Niall Ferguson, said late last year in a major lecture, “Alarm bells should be ringing right now in Washington, D.C.”  His lecture, concentrating on the relationship of failed empires to fiscal irresponsibility, should be played to every member of Congress and to the President.  Clearly, if those alarm bells are ringing, official Washington is deaf.

Sadly, when Ferguson was invited to Washington last year to discuss the dangers of America’s debt, only three Members of Congress attended the event.

We hear a number of excuses for the timid reaction of both Congress and the President.  Let’s look at these “explanations.”

First, neither side wants to “go first” in true debt reduction.

Second, the American public doesn’t understand the nature of federal spending and needs education.

Third, it’s too early in the year and the debt ceiling increase battle will force serious debt and deficit cutting.

Fourth, without Presidential leadership nothing can be achieved.

Let’s look more closely at these four excuses.

First, this isn’t a game like poker.  It’s serious business.  The notion that neither side wants to reveal their hand assumes that both sides are, secretly, really serious about fiscal balance.  A more experienced view is that both sides are playing a public relations game so that if the mess hits the fan, they cannot be blamed.

Second, Americans understand the problem.  Government has promised too much during the past 40 years and now doesn’t have the money to meet those promises.  Like Greece, Italy, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and other developed economies, America’s fiscal problems come down to the same old things:  medical care, pensions, clumsy tax codes, and demographics.

Third, it may be early in the year, but it’s getting late for action.  If Congress and the President do what most astute observers suspect– a series of Continuing Resolutions through this year, a debt ceiling battle that will be characterized more by “process reform” than fiscal reform, and deficits continuing to breach the annual $1 trillion mark–then America will have indeed achieved the grand heights of the PIIGS:  debt at more than 100 per cent of GDP, heading for 200 per cent.

Fourth, waiting for someone to lead indicts this entire generation of federal politicians.  Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, has floated at least two major, comprehensive debt and deficit reduction plans.  It remains noteworthy that almost no one who is in elective office has bothered to endorse the Ryan plan.  When your colleagues begin to move away from you, as though you had a dreaded disease, it’s a sign they you wish you weren’t around.

The President’s budget will “cut” $1.1 trillion during the next 10 years from projected deficits.  That’s just dandy–it represents a trivial effort since total deficits the next decade will certainly approach if not exceed $10 trillion.

Republican plans, except for Ryan’s, play in the same ball park.  With full implementation of a CR for FY11 that really does cut $100 billion in outlays from current year spending, the FY11 deficit still reaches $1.4 trillion and the impact over the next 10 years basically mirrors the impact of the President’s budget submission–that is to say, almost nothing.

Sadly, national politicians can “kick the can down the road,” as the most recent cliché has it.  Bond markets seem unlikely to react negatively as long as Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke remains the buyer of last resort of public debt.

When that unnatural state of affairs ends–and no one knows when “the end” appears–the bond markets will begin to demand much higher interest rates when they take on the debt of a nation that has allowed interest payments on its debt to exceed annual spending on national defense.

Bond markets don’t care about words.  They don’t care about the size of your hat–they want to know how much cattle you have.

Right now, America’s pastures look pretty empty; but, we have pretty hats on.


Will GOP Caucus Revolt Over Boehner’s Budget?

February 12th, 2011 at 11:46 am 16 Comments

The cracks within the Republican House caucus hit the headlines this past week with a crescendo.  A tiny crack began with the failure of the House to pass under suspension an extension of the Patriot Act.  The crack widened with the failure of the House to pass legislation demanding that the United Nations pay us back excess money the U.S. had sent it.

House leadership then pulled trade legislation it had intended to bring to the floor when it appeared that the legislation would be rejected by renegade Republicans–making it three for three in disappointments.

The cracks became real fissures though when the long-feared reality of budget arithmetic dawned on the fiscal hawks in the party.  As we predicted long ago, finding $100 billion in real deficit reduction cuts in the FY11 Continuing Resolution would prove improbable, despite promises by most Republicans that they would achieve that goal.

Now rebellion looms and on a subject much more central to Republican themes than the Patriot Act: the question of smaller government and dramatic cuts in the impending $1 trillion plus deficits.

Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers has been ordered to go back to his committee and find another $40-$50 billion in cuts from the C.R.  Already several gimmicks in accounting emerge from what the committee has already produced.  For example, cuts from President Obama’s proposed budget, which was never enacted, are counted as reductions from spending, although those Obama increases are not part of the deficit problem and are not in the CR spending levels.

As the true relatively small amounts of real deficit-reduction cuts from the CR levels become evident, expect anger on the right to rise.  Already Sen. Jim DeMint and 10 of his compatriots have sent a letter to the House GOP leadership demanding that the House find real cuts of at least $100 billion from the Continuing Resolution.

The upshot of this completely predictable scenario will be further loss of confidence in the GOP leadership in the House.  We noted last month that one of the three most difficult jobs in Washington, D.C., belonged to Speaker John Boehner.  As the fissures potentially widen into canyons, Boehner will continue to be caught between the reality of budget arithmetic and the unrealistic expectations of his caucus.

Ironically, none of this is Boehner’s fault.  Even the most casual observer of the federal budget knew that the exaggerated campaign promises of November would succumb to February’s cold fiscal facts.

And, the harshest of these facts is this–with annual budgets of more than $1 trillion baked in the fiscal cake, all of this hollering over a mere $100 billion seems almost ludicrous.  Just think what screams would accompany a real effort to get federal spending under control–”oh, no, not Medicare and Social Security.”

Welcome to reality.


Do We Really Have a Civility Shortage?

February 1st, 2011 at 2:58 pm 35 Comments

“Civility” now tops the charts as the word of the year in Washington, D.C.

Its ascendance owes much to the media coverage of Congress and its “relationship” to the White House the past two years.

Accordingly, we can read blogs, newspapers, and magazines like The Economist, all urging a “return to civility” in American politics. Senators intone about how the filibuster has ruined the civil dialogue of the Senate.  The House decided that members of the two parties would sit next to each other during the State of the Union.  Clearly, one might gather, America faces a civil breakdown of high order, if all the anguish represents anything.

From what planet did these folks come?

Riots plague France over pensions, Great Britain over tuition increases, Iraq over religion, Egypt over power, Tunisia over economics, and Greece and almost every nation in Africa over almost everything… yet, the Western media have the time to lament a lack of civility in American politics.

An observation of the past four decades reveals a few important points:

a. Few nations fight as noisily and politically over tinier basic differences as America does.

b.  As a corollary, the philosophical differences between politicians in America occupy a very narrow spectrum of differences compared to political divergences in other nations.

c.  It is this very narrow range of our views, indeed, that causes the uproar — everyone is trying to pretend that he (or she) deserves election because of “stark differences” between them and their opponent.

d. ”Stark differences” usually mean such trivialities as 10 per cent more education spending through Pell Grants than through students loans, or 3,000 more acres of wilderness versus 10,000 more acres.

e.  On the big subjects — capitalism, free education for all, equality along gender, race, and religious lines, aid to the poor, support for research into medicine and physics and math, and a progressive tax system — about 95 per cent of members of Congress agree with each other.

f.  But, in a world with a 24-hour media starved for “news,” people get attention almost always only to the extent that they represent idiosyncrasies or exaggerations.

g.  If one wishes to see “uncivil” debate, or no debate at all, go almost anywhere else on the globe.

Of the 6 billion or so folks on earth, it is much less than a billion that enjoy such common civilities as Americans do.  And those very civilities carry over, for the most part, into political debate.

Yes, we have the tragedy of disturbed people carrying out horrendous crimes, although very rarely in the name of national politics.  What we don’t have is troops in city streets, government crackdowns on communications, and forced movement of whole peoples (in the names of such things as new dams) tribal disputes, or an entire gender that faces severe restrictions – and sometimes mutilation – in the name of traditional culture.

My suggestion: stop worrying about the civility of political debate in America and start working on job creation and the soaring and potentially disastrous federal debt.  I suspect that both those agenda items would be in better shape if, in the past, our congressional debates had been, indeed, less civil.


Lame Duck Senate Goes on an Earmark Spree

December 15th, 2010 at 12:23 pm 8 Comments

Did the November elections really happen?  Did Americans, buy cialis in fact, vote for smaller deficits, smaller government, and fiscal restraint?

This was the question Sen. John McCain posed this morning, as the Senate began the task of trying to pass an Omnibus Appropriations Bill for FY11.  It’s a good question.

Even by recent standards this Senate action seems slightly lunatic.  No budget resolution for FY11 passed either body this year.  Not a single appropriations bill was debated on the Senate floor and many were never considered by the relevant sub-committee.  Almost no one except a few senior Senate staffers knows what is in the 2,000 page document.  Estimates put the number of earmarks at more than 6,000 and costing some $8 billion.  Stuck in the bill is a vast expansion of wilderness in Montana, a clear violation of the Senate rules that prohibit putting authorization bills on appropriations.

And, yet, many observers believe that the Omnibus could pass.

The House, in an act of almost monastic purity, passed a Continuing Resolution (CR) for FY11.  Yes, it contains an irrelevant food safety bill, and yes it is more expensive than its proponents admit to.  But, the bill at least attempts to keep spending at current policy levels.  The Senate bill has no such underlying logic—it is truly “the last earmark train coming down the tracks.”

If only for amusement’s sake, it might be nice to watch a House-Senate conference between the House CR and the Senate Omnibus.  Confusion fails as a word to describe such a conference.

Some sophisticated types believe that this entire thing is a plot by Republicans.  These cynics argue that the GOP really wants everything to dissolve into chaos.  This would then lead to a short-term CR expiring, let’s say, in February.  This would give Republicans in the House a chance to then work their tender mercies on FY11 spending through amendment and/or rescission.

If the Senate continues down the path it seems to have chosen, then the GOP will get an early chance next year to validate the notion that elections really did happen in November and those elections have consequences.  For the sake of deficit reduction, one hopes this will be the outcome.  For the sake of cool discussion of budget priorities and fiscal prudence, one hopes that the House CR will prevail and the present Congress gets out of town as soon as possible.

Obama’s Tax Deal: Straight from Clinton’s Playbook

December 7th, 2010 at 10:39 pm 22 Comments

To the utter dismay of his “progressive wing, and ” President Obama has engineered a comprehensive deal on Bush tax cuts, thumb the estate tax issue and other extenders, and a 2% reduction in payroll taxes for the next calendar year.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recognizes what has happened.  Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont recognizes it as well.  It’s called triangulation, the technique Bill Clinton used masterfully.

Against the opposition of his own party, and the vocal opposition of his wife, Clinton decided to push for and eventually sign into law a comprehensive welfare reform bill.  Republicans provided the votes for final congressional passage.

Clinton’s presidency revived in part because of the welfare deal.  He went on to re-election.

With 9.8% unemployment, and the U-6 unemployment rate at about 17%, Obama did what he had to do:  get 13 months extension of unemployment insurance, a 2% payroll tax cut, continuation of the earned income tax credit and expanded child care credit, and 100 per cent expensing for business investment.  And he did it all at the cost of merely giving Bush tax cuts to the wealthy for two years.

If Obama’s actions spur consumer spending and help small businesses begin to recover once again, unemployment might decline much more rapidly than most economists now predict.  If that happens, paint Barack Obama as really back in the game for 2012.

Triangulation has been turned into a dirty word by zealots on the left and right of the political spectrum.  In the old days, such actions were called compromises for the sake of the country.  Long live triangulation!

McConnell Sets a Budget Trap for the Dems

November 19th, 2010 at 2:52 pm 12 Comments

Most analysts and senior staff on the Hill expected the Republican leadership in both Chambers to do all it could to prevent an omnibus appropriations bill for FY2011.  That battle has begun, sales as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has joined with House Leader John Boehner in opposition to an omnibus.

Let’s make a distinction here, unhealthy with a big difference.

An Omnibus Appropriations bill incorporates the 12 individual appropriations bill for the upcoming fiscal year.  Each of those 12, however, are the result of negotiations among the appropriators and leadership.  That means that many of those 12 can be funded at higher spending levels than in the previous fiscal year.

A Continuing Resolution (CR) for Appropriations, by contrast, incorporates all 12 spending items, but caps appropriations for each and every one of them at “current levels.”  That means, if Republicans stick to their guns, that this year’s CR spending level will be frozen at last year’s levels, without incorporating last year’s stimulus spending.  Thus, if successful, Republicans will be able to start the 112th Congress having already slightly reduced anticipated spending and having succeeded in, de facto, banning almost all earmarks.

If Republicans are able to succeed in capping new spending until February, a logical date for a new CR to expire, then House Republicans will be able to start on their announced agenda:  de-funding Obamacare, which requires substantial new monies; threatening the Environmental Protection Agency with reduced spending if the EPA begins to really crack down on CO2 emissions through regulation; and trying to eliminate duplicative programs.

One strategy, often whispered about these days, is to pass an Omnibus (in the House) and a CR (in the Senate), attach a large tax bill to the resulting conference report and get out of town.  Sounds easy, but that’s a heavy load.

For months, observers have wondered how anything other than the CR, something on taxes and the Medicare Docs’ Fix could ever emerge from this chaotic Lame Duck.

Wonder no longer—not much else of substance can pass—not New Start, not the Defense Authorization Bill, and possibly not even an extension of the 99 weeks of unemployment insurance that expires.

The 112th Congress will be great entertainment, as Republicans set the spending and taxing agenda in the House, and the Democratic Senate leadership tries to herd  a very nervous 23 incumbents (who are up for re-election in 2012) along a path forged by the White House.

Thus, elections have consequences still.  Will the president challenge the new congressional order, or will he forge compromise on spending and taxes?  The consequences for his party’s prospects in 2012 remain enormous.

OK, Big Deficit Talkers: It’s Time to Pick a Plan

November 18th, 2010 at 1:10 pm 41 Comments

Yesterday, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Task Force, a year-long fiscal reform effort headed by former Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici and former OMB Director and Vice Chair of the Federal Reserve, Alice Rivlin, hit the media.

So far, not a single elected politician in Congress, has endorsed the plan.  The Domenici-Rivlin plan now joins the initiative by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, and the draft fiscal plan presented by former Sen. Alan Simpson and former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, as real deficit reduction plans that have become radioactive.

Why?  Didn’t many of the voters, especially Tea Party activists, demand budget cuts and smaller deficits earlier this month on Election Day?  Didn’t we hear from candidates of both parties, but especially the Republican hopefuls, that cutting government spending was Job 1?

Ah, that was merely talk, it seems.  Come January many of the loudest campaign trail voices will be strangely muted.  We will hear, “what we meant was we wanted to cut waste and abuse, and we will get rid of earmarks in spending bills. That’s what we meant, not cuts to Medicare or Social Security and certainly no cuts to defense or increases in taxes.”

In budget speak, we refer to that as “numerical amnesia.”  It especially afflicts people who have no notion of what the federal budget funds.

Too many in Congress forget what spending the federal budget truly contains.  We pay 84 per cent of the budget to interest on the public debt, Medicare and Medicaid and other health entitlements, Social Security and other pensions, and subsidies to sectors of the economy such as agriculture and energy. All of the rest of the budget–all health research, law enforcement, national security, and education–compromise only about 16 per cent of the budget.

In short, one could–tomorrow–shut down every activity of the federal government except the entitlements listed above, and not balance this year’s budget. Every single activity, firing every person involved in those activities.

It’s simple arithmetic, then. Real debt reduction takes real courage.  Or as Bill Russell used to say to rookies after he had blocked their shot into the fifth row of seats, “Welcome to the NBA.”

What the Domenici-Rivlin proposes is as follows:

a.  Create a “Social Security tax holiday” for one year, allowing both employees and employers to save approximately $640 billion in taxes and create, as the Congressional Budget Office estimates, more than 2.5 million new jobs.

b.  Balance the primary budget by FY2014 and stabilize the national debt at 60 per cent of Gross Domestic Product by FY2020.

c.  Cut individual and corporate income tax rates, eliminate almost all tax loopholes in current law, increase child care and low income tax benefits, and establish a National Debt Reduction Sales Tax of 6.5 per cent.

d.  Reform Medicare and Medicaid to save tens of trillions of dollars during the next 30 years.

e.  Make Social Security solvent for 75 years.

f.  Freeze domestic and discretionary appropriated programs for 4 and 5 years, respectively.

g.  Cut other pensions and subsidies, like farm subsidies and government retirement programs.

Notably, it was recommended unanimously by a bi-partisan group of 19 former mayors, governors, two former Secretaries of Commerce, and a host of very experienced budget experts.  Every participant from former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial to former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, endorsed the plan.

The President’s fiscal commission, headed by Simpson and Bowles, has been meeting in private now for several days.  It has until Dec. 1, less than two weeks from now, to make formal recommendations to the President.  Many doubt that the commission can get the necessary 14 votes (out of 18 members) to recommend anything like either the Domenici-Rivlin plan or the outline presented by Simpson and Bowles.

No doubt hundreds of interest groups right now have begun letter-writing campaigns against all such comprehensive plans.

Members of the 112th Congress will be bombarded by emails, letters, and tweets, warning of dire electoral consequences if their Member of Congress dares vote for such things.

Undergirding that reality is a recent Wall Street Journal poll showing that among the most vocal opponents of any comprehensive deficit reduction plan are voters who identify themselves as Republicans or Independents.

So, as the slogan goes, “Be careful what you wish for, you may get it.”

For all those who talked ad infinitum about their devotion to fiscal restraint and lower debt, welcome to the big leagues.  You have been able to talk on the campaign trail; now you have to vote in Congress.

The only hope for any of these comprehensive plans is the hard fact that in early spring the Congress will have to vote to increase the federal debt limit.  Lots of folks have already said they will not, under any circumstance, vote for such an increase.

Of course, they will vote for one.  The only question is what kinds of fiscal restraint amendments will be necessary to get 218 votes in the House and 60 votes in the Senate.

Maybe a plan like that of Domenici and Rivlin or Simpson and Bowles will then become more palatable.

The GOP’s Earmark Distraction

November 13th, 2010 at 1:38 pm 4 Comments

Two deep and abiding  themes collided this week in Washington, D.C.–the public relations desire to deflect from tough fiscal choices and the  policy need to confront them in  the name of fiscal sanity.

Two documents symbolize the battle: the release of the recommendations of the co-chairs of the president’s fiscal policy commission (Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan Simpson) and the op-ed piece in the Washington Post condemning “appropriations earmarks” written by Arizona Rep. Jeff Flake.

Rep. Flake, responding to a defense of earmarks by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, contends that earmarks have led to less oversight by the Appropriations Committees and have weakened Congress’ control over fiscal policy.

The Bowles-Simpson debt reduction plan contends that while control over earmarks is not entirely irrelevant to the size of the nation’s fiscal problems, 99% of the fiscal problem is over-promising and underfunding of multi-trillion dollar commitments to future generations in the form of Social Security and other pensions, Medicare, Medicaid and other entitlements.

It is some kind of sign of the times that almost everyone agrees that earmarks are a big problem, but that the Bowles-Simpson recommendations are, pick your choice: “too tough, too radical, not tough enough but also too radical, extreme to the point of an attack on all we hold dear in America, crazy, or politically impossible.”

Thus, once again we observe the collision of form and substance.

The debate makes me think of two events during America’s Civil War: the 1861 Battle of Boonville and the July 1863 Battle of Gettysburg.

Both cost lives; both had winners and losers.  One was so minor as to have almost drifted out of the minds of all but true Civil War historians; the other remains in the minds of almost all educated Americans.  One made little difference to the outcome of the war itself; the other transformed American history in a manner so profound that it echoes in many political discussions l47 years later.

Ask Lee or Meade, or Lincoln or Jefferson, which one really counted.  Ask them if they would have traded a different outcome at Boonville for a different outcome at Gettysburg.

The scuffle over earmarks seems like a Battle of Boonville in this great war for fiscal sanity; the Bowles-Simpson plan begins the fiscal Battle of Gettysburg.

Next week, the Bipartisan Policy Center in D.C. will release its year-long report and recommendations on future fiscal policy.  If anything, it may well prove even more radioactive to politicians than that of Bowles and Simpson, because it is likely to be even more transformative to America’s future.

I have a way to satisfy both sides: if Rep. Flake and others who worry so much about the pernicious impact of earmarks will support the Bi-Partisan Policy Center’s fiscal blueprint, or that of Bowles-Simpson, then every member of Congress will support elimination of earmarks.

I know from my 30 plus years of work on federal budget policy what would happen to that proposal.

Concern about earmarks is merely a way to kick the fiscal can down the road, while telling constituents that “we have done something about spending.”  No one would have to be told that “we did something” if Congress adopted a comprehensive plan like that of Bowles-Simpson or the Bi-Partisan Policy Center.

If Lee or Meade had worried about Boonville, instead of concentrating on Gettysburg, history would treat them as incompetent at best, murderously stupid at worst.

One Bill the Lame Duck Won’t Kill

October 19th, 2010 at 5:25 pm 5 Comments

When Congress is out of session, generic and all the real news is out on the electoral trail, viagra sale it leaves D.C.-based media types a little short of new material.  It becomes doubly difficult when the new material sounds just like the old material.

Thus it is with the concern about the Continuing Resolution for Appropriations for Fiscal Year 2011 (which I will shorten to “C.R.”).  You will recall, advice especially if you are an appropriations lobbyist, that the Congress passed a C.R. that expires Dec. 3rd.  None of the 12 individual appropriations bills has been passed by Congress, which continues an old theme.

Speculation is that several bills may pass Congress when it returns for its lame duck session.  The reality is that very little will pass.  With the GOP expected to regain control of the House, and Democrats holding a much-reduced margin in the Senate, it makes little sense for the GOP to go along with almost anything.  Why would it do so when it could devise bills much more to its liking four months from now?

Congress “must” tackle the expiring Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, we are told.  It also may want to do something about China and its trading methods, energy legislation, and at least 15 or so additional bills.  None will pass.

Indeed, I now have serious doubts that the lame duck Congress will be able to reach agreement on what to do with the Bush tax cuts.  If enough Democrats in the Senate feel threatened by the next election cycle, they may defect to the GOP and the result would be the full extension of the cuts.  Another possible outcome would see the Bush tax cuts expire and the House in the 112th Congress quickly pass a GOP version of the tax cuts in February 2011.  That though would lead to a major faceoff with President Obama over a tax cut he would find difficult to swallow.

Those who believe that compromises can be made on either the C.R. or the tax cuts seem optimistic . My own guess resorts to the famous “Occam’s Razor.”  This philosophical theory goes more or less as follows:  “if many competing hypotheses seem possible to explain an event, choose the one that is simplest.”  (For scholars, what William of Ockham really wrote was, “Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity.)

So, we have many possible outcomes for the lame duck legislative calendar.  Perhaps 50 to 60 members of Congress will have been defeated.  Partisanship will be more fierce than ever.  Democrats, especially, will begin to become independent from the caucuses.  With so many outcomes possible, let’s choose the simplest—the C.R., will pass, relatively clean, and it’s less than 50-50 that the Bush tax cuts will be handled in any final fashion.  Nothing else of significance seems likely.

In case folks have missed it, this is just about what has happened in one form or another at the end of most recent sessions of Congress.  So, the same old tune, just another year older.

Did the GOP Pledge Just Bail Out the Dems?

October 4th, 2010 at 4:53 pm 9 Comments

A famous phrase politicians and their advisors ought to remember, goes something like this: ”When your enemy is tying his own noose, leave him alone.”

With about a month to go to Election Day, one question is whether or not the GOP has interrupted the Democrats as the Democratic leadership was tying its own noose.

Less metaphorically: are the much-discussed “Pledge to America” and the “Ryan Plan” about to become targets of opportunity for Democratic candidates on the campaign trail?

Let’s review the pre-Pledge landscape:

  • Obamacare exemplified over-reaching government by Democrats;
  • Joblessness and the fear of more job loss dominated most voters’ minds;
  • Deficit and debt concerns motivated the Republican base;
  • The endless war in Afghanistan demoralized the Democratic base.

In short, most Democratic candidates had the unappetizing chore of defending any number of things.  And, in politics, if you are defending, you are losing.

Prompted by a number of considerations, the Republican House last month issued its “Pledge to America,” a document that on the surface was sufficiently rhetorical that it carried little danger to GOP candidates who endorsed it.  The question was whether it was wise to do anything that changed the “landscape” of the elections.

Last year, the thoughtful Congressman from Wisconsin, Paul Ryan, released his plan for reducing deficits and the nation’s dangerous indebtedness.  Most notably, almost no one else in the House nor Senate GOP caucuses joined him.  Indeed, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer was more enthusiastic about the plan than the House Republican Leadership.

A few courageous, or naive, GOP incumbents endorsed the plan during last year and earlier this year.  Most of those now face attacks on the plan and their endorsement of it–do you really want to privatize Social Security?  Are you going to deny Medicare benefits in the future to some of the elderly?  Do you really intend to freeze education and healthcare spending?  And, so on.

All of a sudden, Democrats can (neither honestly nor logically) connect the Ryan plan with the Pledge to America.  The result will be a wave of media advertisements accusing GOP candidates of all sorts of plans — like those mentioned above.

In short, was the risk worth the benefit of issuing a Pledge to America.  Was endorsement by anyone of the Ryan plan wise?

One thing emerges from new media attacks by Democratic candidates — both the Pledge and the Plan have become targets of opportunity.  Republicans now must defend those documents.

Will this attack by Democrats work?  Perhaps not, since the anti-incumbent wave seems so massive.  But, the decision to even give Democratic candidates a chance to change the subject has to be considered a risk that out-weighs any potential benefit.

It would have been wiser to allow the Democrats to continue tying their own nooses.