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.