In Search of Political Courage

Both President Barack Obama and the U.S. Congress have emerged exhausted from the fiscal cliff debate. The deal they struck avoided the worse outcome—broad tax increases and broad spending cuts at a time of fragile economic growth. But the agreement did almost nothing to address America’s longer-term challenges. Seldom has so much effort been spent with so little lasting result.

The agreement avoids about two-thirds of the “tax cliff”—the automatic increases that were slated for the New Year. It delays the “spending cliff”—created by automatic spending cuts—for just two months. And it does almost nothing to address America’s long-term debt challenge, caused by the unsustainable growth of public spending relative to GDP.

Fiscal cliff negotiations went on late into the night on Dec. 31.

By all accounts, both President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) wanted a more ambitious deal. But for the second time, they failed to close it. So it fell to the Senate to come up with a temporary, stopgap measure. In late February or March, the federal debt limit will be reached, once again. And the fiscal argument will be renewed, once again.

Why does Washington seem incapable of acting in serious ways to serve the national interest? There are a number of reasons. The president is a poor negotiator, who consistently misjudges and alienates his political opponents. And a number of highly ideological House Republicans don’t seem interested in compromise or agreement. Our politics is partisan and highly polarized in both parties—an atmosphere that is not favorable to the splitting of differences.

But the largest problem runs deeper: a bipartisan lack of political courage. America’s long-term fiscal crisis is created by demographics and simple mathematics. Over the next 30 years, the number of seniors will double, and the average senior takes more than twice in benefits out of Medicare as they pay in premiums. Over time, that is a recipe for fiscal disaster, as spending on health entitlements overwhelms the rest of the federal budget.

The policy options are limited. Either middle class taxes will dramatically increase to fund accelerating entitlement commitments. Or middle class benefits need to be pared back, with programs such as Medicare focused more on helping the poor. Or some mix of these two approaches.

But no one in American politics—Democrat or Republican—wants to tell the middle class they can’t have it all. From a political perspective, this is understandable. From a governing perspective, more honesty and courage is required.

This problem will either be solved when the inevitable crisis comes and credit markets impose drastic, disruptive discipline, or America can pursue a gradual solution, implementing changes over time. This will require politicians of both parties to act together and share the political risk, instead of taking political advantage of difficult decisions.

Until that happens, America will continue to look like Europe—moving from minor fix to minor fix, deferring when it should be deciding, taking credit because things could be worse. But we have all the political dysfunction of Europe without the excuse of being separate countries.

—Michael J. Gerson is nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post and is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).