The current battle of the deficit owes to waging two wars on credit cards while simultaneously cutting taxes to reward special constituencies. Since the Republicans were primarily responsible, it's not unfair of President Obama to demand that they now say in detail how they would make the country atone for it.
Although House Speaker John Boehner has come up with a plan, it omits the key specifics on what tax deductions and loopholes he would close. The devil is truly in those details, and there's no guarantee that even his own chamber could enact them.
Most Republicans still are welded to the insane position that they will never, ever raise tax rates. Some of their most irresponsible cheerleaders – notably Rush Limbaugh – are urging them to take the nation over the so-called fiscal cliff and try to blame Obama for it. This is the same sick mindset that refused to do anything to help the economy if it might also help Obama get re-elected. The perpetrators don't seem to notice that the voters saw through it.
One hopeful sign, though, is the small but growing number of Republicans who are repudiating Grover Norquist's infamous pledge to never raise taxes, or who won without signing it to begin with. It is long past time for Norquist's self-appointed dictatorship to be overthrown.
It was particularly gratifying to see Georgia's U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss in the vanguard, declaring that "I care more about my country than I do about a 20-year-old pledge." In so saying, he acknowledged that Norquist will probably come after him in 2014. And Norquist is not gentle.
As the target of a smear campaign, Chambliss would have very personal reasons to regret the way he won his seat in 2002.
He did it by impugning the patriotism of incumbent Max Cleland, who lost three limbs in Vietnam while Chambliss sat out that war with deferments. Chambliss' ads seized on Cleland's principled votes against the union-bashing provisions of the Patriot Act as a pretext to picture him with Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Chambliss should have been nicknamed "Senator Shameless" for that.
The technique was typical of the negative politicking that has flourished under the U.S. Supreme Court's perverted equation of free spending with free speech. Such advertising seizes on a tiny nugget of truth from which to compound a diabolical distortion. However the deficit debate plays out, there's sure to be a torrent of such advertising -- from both sides -- in the 2014 battle for Congress. Tax and budget votes are especially vulnerable.
To set the stage, let's get some facts straight.
-- Social Security contributes nothing to the deficit and shouldn't be part of the debate. Any changes necessary to extend the trust fund's solvency should be taken up separately. Nothing could be more cynical than for the sinister forces that have never given up on repealing Social Security and Medicare to make the "cliff" a pretext for making people wait longer to receive those earned benefits. Paul Krugman, the nation's leading economics commentator, made that point in The New York Times:
"[I]t would be a hugely regressive policy change, imposing severe burdens on lower- and middle-income Americans while barely affecting the wealthy. Why? First of all, the increase in life expectancy is concentrated among the affluent; why should janitors have to retire later because lawyers are living longer? Second, both Social Security and Medicare are much more important, relative to income, to less-affluent Americans, so delaying their availability would be a far more severe hit to ordinary families than to the top 1 percent."
There is a compelling case, however, for limiting deductions to the same rate for everyone who itemizes. It makes no sense fiscally or morally to allow a family in the 35 percent marginal tax bracket to write off 35 cents on each mortgage or charitable dollar compared to only 25 or 28 cents for those who earn less. If home ownership needs to be subsidized (and why not rentals?), the benefits should be at least even-handed or even tilted toward those who need it more. Perversely, it's now just the opposite. Just like most of the rest of the tax code.