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.”)