Tax Cutters for Truth

Article excerpt

Byline: Ezra Klein

Decoding a strange bipartisan deal.

In Washington last week the temperature dipped into the 20s, which is evidently the point when hell freezes over. President Obama reached an agreement with the Republican Senate leader, who said, "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." Sen. Bernie Sanders, a socialist from Vermont, and Sen. Jim DeMint, an archconservative from South Carolina, both threatened to filibuster the agreement. Liberal Democrats said they'd prefer a permanent extension of most of the Bush tax cuts, while the architect of those tax cuts said the country couldn't afford anything more than a temporary extension.

It was a confusing week.

But it was also a clarifying one. The deal, which sees Republicans giving the White House about $300 billion in stimulus in return for the White House giving Republicans about $130 billion in tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, laid bare some realities of how Washington works--and doesn't work--right now. It's worth going through them one by one.

No one really cares about the deficit--at least not yet. No sooner had Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles completed their work on a deficit-reduction package than Democrats and Republicans reached a bipartisan accord to add $900 billion to the debt. Republicans wanted their unpaid-for tax cuts for the rich; Democrats wanted their unpaid-for stimulus measures. And both sides wanted the unpaid-for tax cuts for incomes under $250,000. I think it's appropriate to spend while the economy is weak and then repay when it's strong, but then, I didn't just get elected to Congress by promising to rein in spending.

Obama is better at the inside game than the outside game. Sarah Palin likes to ask the president how "that hopey-changey stuff" is going. The answer, it seems, is that the changey stuff is going well, but the hopey stuff is proving more troublesome. Obama campaigned in 2008 as the inspirational newcomer who had no patience for the broken ways of Washington, but he's governed like a Beltway veteran with little patience for inspired outsiders. In health-care reform, the stimulus, financial regulation, and the tax-cut deal, he's proved a tough negotiator able to move his agenda through a gridlocked Congress--but he hasn't been able to keep Democrats enthused or the popularity of his initiatives high. …