WASHINGTON — What Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson have given America is the equivalent of a cold shower after a night of heavy drinking. It’s sober-up time.
The co-chairmen of the president’s commission on deficits and debt, in outlining the steps they said would be necessary to eliminate red ink and restore the budget to health by 2020, accomplished one great achievement: They made it impossible for anyone to pretend there are relatively easy or painless ways to dig out of the monumental fiscal pit we have fallen into.
For a full decade, our politicians have pretended to offer solutions to the budgetary dilemma that were no solution at all. Even before the Great Recession struck, Republican Congresses were playing charades with the approval of President George Bush, and the nation was sinking deeper into debt each year.
President Barack Obama came to office vowing that he would not just kick the can down the road to his successor. When he said this at a preinaugural meeting with Washington Post reporters, I believed that he meant it — and he did.
Bowles, the former Clinton White House chief of staff, and Simpson, the Republican former senator from Wyoming, never doubted that Obama was serious about the charge he had given them to clean up this mess. When I interviewed them in Boston last summer, they made it plain they were going to lay out what it would take to solve this problem, in all its gory detail.
Some of the other members of the 18-person commission, charged with recommending action to Congress by Dec. 1, sounded shocked at what Simpson and Bowles had put before them. They should not have been.
Everyone and every institution will have to contribute — no, genuinely, sacrifice — if we are to repair the damage to our economic health. No area of government spending will be spared. Not the Pentagon, not Social Security and Medicare, not a single agency or bureau. The tax system will change and collect more from the people than it does now.
As this message sinks in, I think there is a chance that a realistic dialogue will occur in Washington. And oddly enough, divided government may help it along rather than interfere with its growth.
As the Bowles-Simpson recommendations are debated within the commission for the remainder of this month, we will learn two things: First, which of the many uncomfortable options are most objectionable to the most people? Those will have to be modified. And second, is there a core constituency anywhere prepared to step up and face the challenge?
The co-chairmen will hold people’s feet to the fire. What they have said is that every time they are told “I can’t support that,” their response will be, “So, what’s your alternative?”
What is likely to emerge from that dialogue is a revised agenda that may come closer to commanding a majority in this divided Congress. No Democrat can believe, looking around, that he or she can protect all the programs passed since the New Deal and Great Society days; not with all those Republicans and tea partiers sitting there with their knives out.
And no Republican, no matter how ideologically isolated, can believe that the Democrats, whose votes will be needed for any package, will permit all of the sacrifices to be made only on the spending side — especially in the low-income programs.
I expect weeks and even months of protest and gnashing of teeth. But unlike others, I think in the end that reality will force accommodations and when it does, there will be genuine reason for celebration.
What is happening right now in Britain, where Parliament is debating an austerity budget, will happen here as well. The new day of sobriety will begin.
David Broder, a columnist for The Washington Post, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.