Fifteen years ago, on Jan. 23, 1996, President Bill Clinton delivered his State of the Union speech. A little more than a year before, Clinton and congressional Democrats had experienced a shellacking in the 1994 congressional elections, when the Republicans took over control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 42 years and also won control of the U.S. Senate.
In seven words in that speech — “The era of big government is over,” Clinton told the American people that he had listened to their voices from November 1994. Four years later, working with Republicans in Congress, he left office with a trillion-dollar surplus. He also left office with an unprecedented 65 percent job approval rating for a two-term president.
Now fast-forward to 2010. Once again a sitting Democratic president and a Democratic Congress got shellacked in midterm elections, with the Republicans winning 63 seats and taking over the House.
In December, during the lame-duck session, President Barack Obama showed he got the message — he worked with conservative Republicans in the Congress and cut a deal, trading off extending the Bush tax cuts, even for millionaires, in return for new job-creating stimulus and extended unemployment benefits.
Now, in his State of the Union address next week, he can start by saying: “The era of bipartisanship is beginning.”
To make those words real, my suggestion is that he put in the balcony, to be called out and thanked, the two brave bipartisan co-chairmen of the fiscal commission — former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former Wyoming Republican Sen. Alan Simpson.
The current deficit in spending over revenues is $1.5 trillion. The total national debt is now over $14 trillion — that is $45,269.46 for every American. By 2015, the debt is projected to increase to $20 trillion, or about 100 percent of GDP. After that, le deluge.
And what did Bowles and Simpson say is the only answer? A combination of massive cuts in federal spending, including reductions in Social Security benefits and other entitlements, and tax increases, including eliminating corporate tax loopholes and reducing the interest rate deduction on home mortgages.
Despite touching these and many other third rails of American politics for the left and the right, Bowles and Simpson got 60 percent of the fiscal commission to support these proposals — including liberal Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin and conservative Republican Sen. Tom Coburn. This was fewer than the 75 percent needed to recommend the proposals to Congress — but more than it would take to break a Senate filibuster!
As Bowles said to me recently, “We have managed to offend everyone — we must have done something right. Now who will be willing to stand up, join hands, and honestly face the truth?”
Obama should hold up a copy of the Bowles-Simpson report in his hand next week, turn to the left and to the right, to both sides of the aisle, look into the camera, and say: “Whoever in this chamber is willing to help me enact most of the Bowles-Simpson proposals into law so we can finally put a stop to using credit cards that our children and our grandchildren have to pay for, stand up now and be counted.”
Then all of America watching can wait for the TV cameras to focus on which members don’t stand up.
So, Mr. President: Let us begin a new era of bipartisanship. Remember, after Bill Clinton promised that the “era of big government is over,” he added: “But we cannot go back to the time when our citizens were left to fend for themselves. Instead we must go forward as one America, one nation working together.” This is essentially what you said in your famous 2004 convention keynote speech and ran on in 2008.
If you recommit to true bipartisanship, as you did in December, you will reclaim the great moderate center where most Americans are — the only place where real solutions to our problems can be enacted. And that is what most Americans want most.
Lanny Davis is the principal in the Washington D.C. law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates. He served as President Clinton’s special counsel in 1996-98 and as a member of President Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board in 2006-07. He is the author of “Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics Is Destroying America” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).
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