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The Muddled Message of Centrist Deficit Hawks

David Callahan
Washington's centrist deficit hawks are both dedicated and well-financed, and they could hardly be better connected. But what exactly do they want? That can be hard to tell, and this lack of a super clear message is striking for a cabal that's otherwise so well organized. 
About their dedication: Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, has been slogging away at this issue for over a decade, and Pete Peterson has been on the case for over two decades. (He was a cofounder of the Concorde Coalition, a deficit group formed in 1992.) About the money: The Peter Peterson Foundation had about a half billion dollars in assets in 2012, while the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget spent over $8 million that year. As for the power ties, that goes without saying. CRFB's board is stocked with heavy hitters, and Peterson knows everyone. 
All that's missing is a compelling message.
By that, I don't mean a message that I agree with, because I generally don't share this crowd's worldview and, in fact, believe they've done a lot of damage to their own cause by keeping the focus on austerity when it should have been on stimulus, so we could get the growth needed to bring down deficits.
Rather, I mean a message that distills their own agenda down to bite-sized points and offers a clear argument that anyone can follow. Spend some time looking around the websites of CRFB and PPF, and you may come away with a sense of urgency that we need to act on fiscal issues, and now. But you won't have a clear sense of the most important things we should do as a nation. It's hard to find a simple five-point plan, or easy-to-follow blueprint, on either organization's website. CRFB is especially down in the weeds. 
Or Take the Campaign to Fix the Debt. A centerpiece of the Campaign is a petition to Congress and the President, which tells these leaders the following: That the time for action is now, that the debt is unsustainable, that any solution must address all parts of the budget and be in keeping with core American values, and that leaders should put ideology aside and find common ground. 
Hey, all that sounds fine to me (except the part about acting right now when, actually, we still need more stimulus). But those points are too lofty to actually constitute the kind of sharp, clear argument that can move the needle amid the cacophony of national politics. 
To find a sharper argument, you need to dig further into the Fix the Debt website, where they get more into specifics: reform government healthcare programs, raise revenue through tax reform, and otherwise pursue the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles Commission or the Domenici-Rivlin Task Force.  
Right, like your average concerned citizen is going to remember what some commission said three years ago. 
With all the seasoned pols who are centrist deficit hawks, you'd think that one of them would have pushed this universe to crystallize its Ask and then keep drumming in that Ask again and again, so nobody can miss it. In a nutshell, the core Ask of the centrist deficit hawks is that America needs to:
  • Limit how much money we spend on old people, particularly for healthcare
  • Limit other domestic spending in a way that doesn't whack the poor
  • Limit how much money we spend on national defense. 
  • Raise taxes
Yeah, I know, there are lots of nuances here and subsidiary points, and so on. But that's the core Ask, as far as I can tell. And you could boil it down further, to the stuff that matters most: contain health spending on old people, downsize the national security state, and raise taxes. Done. Fiscal problem solved.
Again, this isn't the message I would trumpet from every mountaintop. I'd put more emphasis on investments to spur economic growth. But if this is the centrist message, they should get focused on selling it one of the days.