Last summer, following their failure to get the White House or Congress to embrace the austerity agenda outlined by their National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles announced that they would launch a populist campaign to pressure Congress to “Fix the Debt.” Where did they make the announcement? On Main Street? Some abandoned factory? The kitchen table of a working family? Don’t be silly. They went to their base: a gathering of billionaire CEOs at a swank resort in Sun Valley, Idaho.
That day in July 2012 was probably the last point at which Simpson, a long-retired Republican senator, and Bowles, a twice-defeated Democratic Senate candidate who now serves on the board of Morgan Stanley, found significant support for their initiative. As they and their CEO constituency—led by Pete Peterson, Richard Nixon’s free-spending former commerce secretary—ramp up phony “grassroots” campaigning to hack away at Social Security, there will be much talk about how Americans want Congress to “rise above” partisan differences and implement austerity. Indeed, Fix the Debt’s favorite claim is that voters are ready to do what the politicians are not.
But that’s not true. Voters are all for balanced budgets and fiscal responsibility, but they have no taste for an austerity agenda that benefits billionaires and burdens working families. As he and Bowles waded into the electoral fray last fall on behalf of candidates who embraced their approach, Simpson declared, “We love combat. And we appreciate people who appreciate what we did.” But voters showed, in no uncertain terms, that there was not enough appreciation to elect those candidates.
Sure, the Simpson-Bowles interventions drew headlines, especially in New Hampshire, where they endorsed GOP Congressman Charlie Bass, one of just thirty-eight House members who backed a budget bill based on their plan. They also made news in Rhode Island, declaring after a meeting with Republican candidate Brendan Doherty, ”Brendan has put partisanship aside by being willing to step forward to make tough decisions our nation needs.” And as Bob Kerrey showed signs of being competitive in his Nebraska comeback bid, Simpson announced that the former Democratic senator “will place the national interest ahead of the howling special interests.”
If there was a nascent popular will to dismiss the “howling special interests” of AARP and other groups that seek to preserve Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, surely the nation’s most vocal austerity advocates could have unleashed it. Or, at the very least, inspired voters to rally around a national Republican ticket featuring House Budget Committee chair and austerity proponent Paul Ryan. (“Paul is honest. He is straightforward. He is sincere,” Bowles declared of Ryan. “And the budget that he came forward with is just like Paul Ryan.”)
But in November it didn’t happen. In New Hampshire and Rhode Island, Democrats won after groups like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee highlighted the Simpson-Bowles nod as a reason to reject their Republican foes. No Simpson-Bowles magic lifted Kerrey in Nebraska. And Ryan’s policies became such a burden to the presidential ticket that by the time he debated Joe Biden, the Republican veep nominee was dancing around even the simplest budget questions. The Simpson-Bowles fix was tested at the polls. And it lost.
This was confirmed by an election-night survey conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, which found that by a 73–18 margin, those polled said that protecting Medicare and Social Security from benefit cuts is more important than bringing down the deficit. Fully 84 percent opposed reducing Social Security benefits; 68 percent opposed raising the Medicare eligibility age; 69 percent opposed reductions in Medicaid benefits. The people had different plans for debt reduction: 88 percent supported allowing Medicare to negotiate with drug companies to lower costs; 64 percent supported addressing the deficit by increasing taxes on the rich. There was broad sympathy for a growth agenda that provided federal government funding to struggling local governments. Notably, Americans recognized the real problem: 72 percent said corporations and wealthy individuals have too much influence on the political system.
But Simpson and Bowles won’t take no for an answer. Now they’re back, fronting a repurposed campaign that fosters the fantasy of popular appeal with expensive advertising campaigns in Washington and “astroturf” efforts that project enthusiasm that is nonexistent beyond the Beltway, in hopes of exploiting the sequester and debt-ceiling fights of 2013.
The Fix the Debt project, financed by corporations and billionaires, seeks to buy that influence after its proposals were rejected by the voters. That’s not democracy; that’s plutocracy.
Also in This Forum
The Editors: “Inside the Phony, Fearmongering ‘Fix the Debt’ Campaign”
Lisa Graves: “Pete Peterson’s Long History of Deficit Scaremongering”
Mary Bottari: “Pete Peterson’s Puppet Populists”
Dean Baker: “Fix the Debt’s Fuzzy Math”