Robert Samuelson’s Brilliant, Ethical, Hopeless Proposal

Great idea, Robert. Too bad it requires courage and honesty.

I don’t generally regurgitate other writers’ essays, but in this case I am making an exception. Robert Samuelson, rare among op-ed columnists in that he is a truth-teller without party bias, has a column today that proposes a joint act of integrity and heroism by Barack Obama’s immediate predecessors. His idea, if implemented, could have a major impact on breaking the impasse in Congress that threatens the nation’s future. It could be accomplished without bureaucratic red tape, and is profoundly responsible and ethical. And it would burnish the legacies of two former presidents who could use some burnishing.

Will it happen? Never. That’s the disturbing part.

Samuelson suggests that former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush  tour the country together and jointly apologize for not tackling Social Security and Medicare when they had the chance.

“Bush would concede that we’ll ultimately need higher taxes to balance the budget; Clinton would support real Social Security and Medicare cuts to minimize draconian reductions in other government programs and steep tax increases….Clinton would condemn Democrats’ ritualistic attacks on Republicans — he excelled at them — that equate any changes in Social Security and Medicare with demolishing the programs. Bush would challenge the world’s Grover Norquists for whom even the tiniest tax increase is an unpardonable sin inviting economic ruin.”

Furthermore, Samuelson proposes that the two former presidents jointly act as a bi-partisan truth squad during the 2012 campaign, something none of the so-called “Fact-Checkers” seem capable of doing:

“If President Obama or his Republican opponent engaged in misleading scare tactics, Clinton and Bush would call them out…This exercise would elevate public rhetoric to the level of private knowledge. Clinton and Bush know, as does almost anyone who’s examined the budget, that lower retirement benefits and higher taxes are essential to bringing government revenues and spending eventually into balance. But practicing politicians cannot utter these twin truths together without calling forth the full wrath of their own true believers, who remain in resolute denial — or are simply dishonest.”

Samuelson’s plan is brilliant in its simplicity. Neither Clinton nor Bush are accountable to party bosses now, so it is a perfect time for them to be accountable to the American people. Both played politics with the nation’s financial health—Clinton by refusing the address Medicare and Social Security at a time when the country’s economic condition was robust and Republicans were willing to work with him, Bush by passing tax cuts and a seniors drug benefit that we can’t afford. Their admission that they failed the American people for expediency, and the truths behind their actions, would have power credibility because it would  be against self-interest. It could force the policy process to get serious, by pulling away the disguises, posturing and double-talk. Just two men willing to accept responsibility for their decision to put politics above the nation’s best interests could, ironically, save the country by forcing our current leaders to do what they did not.  It is the ethical thing to do.

As Samuelson concedes, however…fat chance. “Okay, it’s just my fantasy,’ he concludes. “Clinton and Bush won’t apologize and atone. They won’t play truth squad. But the fact that my fantasy seems so outlandish offers a sobering commentary on our politics.”

It’s more than that, I think. It is also a commentary on American society  and the caliber of leadership it has produced.

10 thoughts on “Robert Samuelson’s Brilliant, Ethical, Hopeless Proposal

  1. So long as Clinton’s wife is Secretary of State in the Obama administration, wouldn’t Clinton have a conflict of interest as a “fact-checker”?

      • But he might be more loyal to Hillary (yes, yes, I know) than to the voters. This would mean that he might not be truthful as a fact-checker. Even if he was truthful, people might suspect that he was not. Or is my understanding of conflict of interest incorrect?

        • It’s a matter of credibility, not conflict. He has no official position, so he has no official conflict. If a perceived bias causes him to be less credible, then you’re right, it’s a problem.

          Now that I think about it, Clinton is the fly in this ointment. How many people, even his admirers, would believe that whatever he says isn’t motivated by some angle? I sure wouldn’t.

          In fact, Samuelson’s an idiot!!

  2. Bill Clinton wants Hillary for President in 2016, and with 8 years of Secy of State under her belt this go-around, I think she’ll probably have a very real and legitimate chance. Now, the only way to get her 8 years as Secy of State is to keep Obama in office during this next election.

    • I’ll take that bet!

      Hillary missed her moment, and I’m pretty sure she knows it. Want to speculate on which of the Obama foreign policy botches will have metastasized into a full-fledged catastrophe by 2016? How about just the NUMBER that do– I hosey—hmmm, FOUR. . There is a reason no Secretary of State has been elected President since before the Civil War. Another factor…members of one-term (that is, failed) administrations never, never go the White House. A lot can happen in five years, but most of what might happen are likely to make Hillary’s prospects bleaker, not better.

  3. “Samuelson suggests that former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush tour the country together and jointly apologize for not tackling Social Security and Medicare when they had the chance.”

    Did not the other Presidents earlier fail to initiate medicare? They didn’t because of ‘free enterprise’. Social Justice in one hand and free enterprise as interpreted by US, at the other can never converge into Medicare for the public.

    India introduced Cost Audit of companies in 1965, at that time only MNCs, on essential commodities, then later added Pharma, Petroleum etc. prevalent even today. Obama must legislate pricing controls of essential commodities particularly Medicare. US Pharma can afford to take a beating on cash-flow now. Free enterprise has made individuals very rich at the cost of public loss in US.

    No point in crying over the spilt milk and calling the ghosts of past Presidents will be counter productive.

    • Huh?
      You really are satisfied with letting every leader off the hook because the previous leaders screwed up? Absurd. Really absurd, and a failure to fathom accountability and responsibility. Clinton and Bush were the most recent Presidents, and it is reasonable to hold them more accountable than Ike, JFK, or Chester A. Arthur.

      Though, to be fair your grasp of economics and finance is worse. But off topic.

  4. Credibility issues and political gain issues aside … Clinton and Bush Sr. joined hands and made a difference when it came to raising funds for disaster relief with great success, even though there was a long history of conflict between them prior to that point. Bush Jr. does not have the intellectual prowess to speak in the same room with his father – and certainly not with Clinton. But if Clinton and Bush Sr. were to join forces and attempt to hold both parties to a higher level of accountability and responsibility it might be worth the effort.

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