POLITICS
12/20/2012 01:59 pm ET | Updated Dec 26, 2012

Erskine Bowles Blames Both Sides In Fiscal Cliff Talks Like A Good 'Bipartisanship Cult' Member

Over at Daily Intel, Jonathan Chait dings Erskine Bowles, correctly, for succumbing to the same Beltway dyskinesia that you often see in famous columns from David Brooks, Thomas Friedman, and the rest of the gang of bipartisan Grand Bargaineers. Those who suffer from this malady chiefly present with some well-known symptoms. First, they tend to take President Barack Obama's major contributions to the field of gentlemanly compromise and throw them into the memory hole, thus maintaining the illusion that the government's failures to enact long-term budget deals and other attendant reforms are the fault of both parties, and not simply because the GOP (which would ordinarily leap at the chance to take Obama up on his deals and then run a million victory laps up and down Independence Avenue) has become a mouth-foaming band of lycanthropes in recent years.

The cause for Chait's anger is the fact that Bowles -- famously of the "Erskine-Bowles plan" "Simpson-Bowles plan," which everybody lionizes as a replacement Messiah without having the first clue what it calls for -- has an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal in which he goes to strenuous lengths to avoid noting the fact that Obama has essentially "closed the divide" between the two parties and is now just waiting for John Boehner's fever to break. What I'd point out is how well this latest episode proves correct Eric Hoffer's old maxim: "What starts out here as a mass movement ends up as a racket, a cult, or a corporation."

The role of the deficit scold is to lay blame equally on the side that’s trying to do what you want and the side that isn’t. The pathetic thing about Obama’s behavior is his persistent efforts to shame the deficit scolds into abandoning their neutrality and convince them he is on their side and the Republicans aren’t. He is, of course. But not noticing this fact is a major part of the deficit scolds’ job description.

It may, in fact, be the only part of their job description. Consider, if you will, the ongoing bargaining over the revenue component, which Chait describes. Obama's opening bid was a $1.6 trillion revenue increase, which was met by Boehner's $800 billion offer, and now Obama's in the split-the-difference middle with a $1.2 trillion offer, "closing the divide" in about as accommodating a manner as can be expected. Yet Boehner has balked. All of which has caused Bowles to complain that Obama is as much to blame as Boehner, saying, "When you think that for better or worse, America will spend over $40 trillion in the next 10 years and these guys can’t find $200 billion to close their divide and prevent an economic collapse, it is pitiful.”

But what's optimal, here? Is Bowles saying that Boehner needs to move $200 billion in Obama's direction? If so, how is that Obama's fault? It's only Obama's fault if the truly, magical, bipartisan intersection point is an even $1 trillion that Obama should climb down to and thus show "leadership." But let's recall that the "Erskine-Bowles plan" itself called for $2.6 trillion in revenue increases. So, no matter how you cut it, "bipartisan consensus" is leading everyone away from the revenue target that Bowles once insisted was optimal.

So how do explain Erskine Bowles' weird caterwauling? Well, simply put, I'm not sure he actually gives a tinned turd about the deficit. If he did, he'd be treating his own plan with some degree of seriousness and not making ignorant declamations about how both sides are failing to reach a deal. Right now, it's only one side that's actually failing, and the deal isn't even what Bowles claims to want anyway. Instead, he's doing his part to maintain his standing in this weird "bipartisanship cult," where agreement is an end in itself and the policy outcomes for ordinary Americans aren't even a secondary concern.

This cult's major accomplishment -- beyond, of course, the gut-numbingly farcical Super-Committee and the "sequester" cuts which now are a component of the so-called fiscal cliff -- is the erection of a robust mechanism by which the money of the elites is redistributed to the people who help perpetuate this racket. This is why Bowles can now enjoy a nice new personal revenue stream in which he gets paid tens of thousands of dollars to admonish "both sides" for failing to agree on a deal that isn't even the deal to which Bowles signed his name.

It's nice work if you can get it!

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