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Terry Newell Headshot

The Deficit and the Whirlwind

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Since becoming Speaker of the House, John Boehner must feel a little like President Thomas Jefferson who once quipped that his job was a "splendid misery and a daily loss of friends." Unlike Jefferson, however, Boehner is losing most of his friends from his own party.

Typical of his problems is the comment of Florida freshman Republican Allen West, whose response to the recent $38.5 billion budget cutting package Boehner negotiated with President Obama was that: "I think my leadership needs to probably sit down and have a come-to-Jesus with themselves." He called the cuts a "raindrop in an ocean." Indeed, the Tea Party reaction to Boehner and the budget deal varies from disappointed at best to furious at worst. Boehner, for his part, was reduced to saying: "It is no cause for celebration. It is just one step."

It's a sign of our political predicament that Speaker Boehner, now most likely well to the right of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush -- and possibly even George W. Bush -- is considered insufficiently conservative. He has only these predecessors -- and of course himself -- to blame.

For over four decades, the Republican Party has run on a platform which to varying degrees has charged that: (a) the federal government is out of control and cannot be trusted, (b) government is the problem not the solution, (c) taxes are too high and can always be cut, and (e) we must cut government and cut taxes to save America.

The Democratic Party has not been immune from a similar problem. For even longer than the Republicans, it has chanted the mantra of creating and protecting a social safety net and solving problems as diverse as the environment, education, and health care on the assumptions that: (a) government is the solution, (b) spending can be increased, (c) if we have to raise taxes, we can look to the wealthy, and (d) government can save America. And the Democrats, to be sure, have also contributed mightily to convincing the American public that the federal government is the villain that needs to be run against.

As the years passed, these arguments on both sides seem to have gotten stronger and more strident. As a result, Congress has become more polarized. Compromise -- especially among Republicans in recent months -- has become equated with selling out rather than governing.

As we turn to the tougher task of long-term deficit and debt reduction, the people who must get the job done have made their work harder by their own political posturing. When they need to negotiate the most, they will have little room to move without alienating their base and disowning their own prior rhetoric. They will be like doctors who go into the operating room with one eye shut, one ear closed to the rest of the surgical team and half their instruments left off the table.

This is sad for the patient -- America -- and potentially tragic for our fiscal future. Without a measure of political courage we have rarely seen in recent years, this can only end badly, with both parties turning further to the extreme and trying to use the 2012 election to gain the upper hand.

This result would belie the fact that most Americans are more sensible than the extremes of their parties, as evidenced by the growth of the independent segment of the electorate over the years. A greater percentage of the electorate now identifies itself as "Independent" than "Republican" and "Democrat." It's as if the charge that government is out touch with the majority of Americans has been hurled so long by both parties that is has produced the very result it railed against.

Political leaders at all levels and in both parties can, in fact, save America. There are solutions to the debt and the deficit that are sensible, fair, and that will inflict reasonable and shared pain. But adopting these solutions will require many politicians to sacrifice themselves, an act as unappealing as it is most often unheralded. Yet, as the Bible put it (Hosea 8:7): "For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind..." The "they," by the way, is not just politicians. It is all of us.