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Doyle McManus: Which candidate would forge a budget deal?

  • Los Angeles Times
  • Published Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012, at 6:02 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, Oct. 5, 2012, at 6:45 a.m.

Here’s one thing the two presidential candidates agree on: The federal government’s current fiscal course will lead to disaster.

They both even genuflect to the same starting point for a possible compromise: the 2010 proposal offered by former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., and Erskine Bowles, President Clinton’s former chief of staff.

“I think very highly of their recommendations,” Mitt Romney said last spring.

“I’m still eager to reach an agreement based on (their) principles,” President Obama said at the Democratic National Convention.

Yet when Simpson and Bowles were looking for support in 2010, Obama and Romney were nowhere to be found. Obama greeted their proposal with little more than a perfunctory “thank you.” Romney was mostly silent on their report, but his running mate wasn’t: Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., voted against the proposal as a member of the commission.

There’s plenty of pain in the Simpson-Bowles proposal, of course; that’s why it united the two parties in the House of Representatives in a rare moment of bipartisanship when they voted against endorsing it by a whopping 382-28.

The proposal would slash both domestic spending and defense spending, and raise taxes to boot. It would cut benefits for the elderly, veterans and government employees, and impose a cap on future health care spending. And it would gradually raise the Social Security retirement age from 67 to 69.

Obama has proposed a budget plan with spending cuts, but they are far lower than the cuts Simpson and Bowles propose. Romney would cut domestic spending deeply but has promised never to raise taxes.

And neither candidate has been courageous enough to suggest future cuts in Social Security benefits.

But let’s give both candidates the benefit of the doubt and assume that they really do embrace the logic of Simpson-Bowles – that both sides must make painful concessions. Which presidential candidate is most likely to succeed in forging a compromise?

“Neither candidate has been specific enough in telling the voters how they’d do it,” Simpson said. “You’re going to have to flip a coin.”

“I will be voting for Mitt Romney. And Erskine will be voting for Barack Obama. And then we’ll move on,” he said.

Still, the two prophets of budget balancing framed their choices in ways that may help voters decide.

Simpson’s case in favor of Romney boils down to this: “Romney knows how to govern. How do you learn better to govern than by being governor of Massachusetts, working with a Democratic legislature?” Obama, he said, “hasn’t made the tough decisions.”

Bowles says he supports Obama, largely because he thinks a second-term president has more freedom to compromise. “A second-term president who is not running for re-election, who doesn’t have to worry as much about what the base thinks, is more likely to do a deal,” Bowles argued.

On the other side, he said, “Gov. Romney has staked himself on no revenue increases to prove he’s a real conservative. He said he wouldn’t agree to $1 in revenue in exchange for $10 in spending cuts. It would be very difficult for him to move away from that.”

Fixing the federal budget is the most important domestic challenge facing the next president. And that makes one question crucial: Which candidate has the courage, backbone and skill to make a deal?

Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

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