This past January, President Obama stated that the state of our union is and always will be strong. With an improving yet still ailing economy and bleak budget outlooks for the future, some may disagree. What nearly every American and politician agrees upon, however, is that the state of our politics is weak. The strong reaction to the miraculous recovery of Representative Gabrielle D. Giffords showed, if anything, that most Americans and members of Congress wish that the government could work better for its people. Despite the good intentions of many individuals—from the Bowles-Simpson Commission to the Senate Gang of Six—politics in America remains unnecessarily polarized. If gridlock remains despite the willingness of significant party members and committee leaders to work together, perhaps we as Americans have been looking for the problem in all of the wrong places. Polarization in America is not a result of disagreements over solutions; it is a serious dispute over what the problems actually are.
If Americans remember one thing about their government from the summer, it is the fierce and drawn-out debate over the debt ceiling and fiscal future of the United States. Approximately six months later however, the president seems to have forgotten. He’s been fighting against Congress for six months, but he won’t even mention what they were fighting about. In the State of the Union address, the big three entitlement programs—Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security—received one mention in a speech that lasted well over one hour, despite the fact that they are the largest drivers of the federal debt by a wide margin. In the Republican response, it took Governor Mitch E. Daniels (R-IN) a mere few minutes to point out the glaring omission: “So 2012 is a year of true opportunity, maybe our last, to restore an America of hope and upward mobility, and greater equality. The challenges aren’t matters of ideology, or party preference; the problems are simply mathematical, and the answers are purely practical.”
On the issue of entitlement reform and truly placing the nation on a path to fiscal sustainability, Republicans have kept their word. Last April, Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-WI) introduced a plan to reduce the federal deficit by $6.2 trillion over the next ten years and reform welfare and entitlement programs to bring future spending under control and preserve the programs for the future. In response, Democrats accused Ryan of throwing grandma off the cliff and gleefully used the plan to pummel Republicans in a special congressional election in New York. Ryan tried again, this time introducing a bipartisan Medicare reform plan with Senator Ron L. Wyden (D-OR) that offered both more choices for seniors and means testing programs, which determine eligibility based on each recipient’s wealth. The White House, Democratic leaders, and liberal advocacy groups once again flatly rejected the proposal. When Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) introduced a plan to reform Social Security that would prevent drastic cuts as it depletes its funds over the next 20 years, Democrats and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-NV) refused to consider it.
After two Republican proposals and at least one bipartisan proposal, Democrats have yet to put forward even one solution to the entitlement crisis that currently threatens to engulf the nation. Rep. Nancy P. D. Pelosi has vowed to fight against any attempt to cut Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Sen. Reid called Social Security “the most successful social program in the history of the world,” yet he proposed nothing to save it. President Obama has done little but attack Republicans for even touching the programs. Under the president’s 2013 budget plan, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the economy will completely shut down in 2027 because of the sheer size of the debt. The Democratic Party has essentially announced that its policy is to deny reality. Medicare will be bankrupt in less than nine years. The economy will collapse in 15 years, and, if we somehow survive Obama’s budget projections, Social Security will cut all benefits by nearly 25 percent in 20 years if nothing is done. Currently, the entitlement programs have promised $46 trillion in benefits that they cannot pay for, and the figure worsens every year that nothing is done. If Democrats want to pay for these with increased taxes on the 1 percent, they better hope that the wealthy get a lot richer, and quickly. For every year that the status quo remains, the situation worsens, and the possible solutions shrink in number.
By refusing to recognize the true financial state of the union, Democrats have created the paralyzing partisanship that they so frequently complain about. Republicans have come forward with solutions for the American people and have displayed willingness to compromise, but compromise assumes that the opposite side has a position with which one can compromise. Democrats not only lack solutions, but they also willingly remain ignorant of perhaps the greatest threat to the future of the nation for their own temporary political gain. Ending polarization doesn’t require any complicated reforms; all it requires is for one side to open its eyes to reality and come forward with its own solutions. The adults in the room are waiting.
Derek J. Bekebrede ’13 is an economics concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.