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The Wrong Apology

The usually supremely sensible Robert J. Samuelson has a curious column out this morning in the Washington Post, calling for former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to link arms and embark on an “apology tour,” admitting their failure to tackle entitlements while in office and forming a bipartisan truth squad to create an opening for compromise in the middle:

They would say things that would offend their political bases: Bush would concede that we’ll ultimately need higher taxes to balance the budget; Clinton would support real Social Security and Medicare cuts to minimize draconian reductions in other government programs and steep tax increases. . .

Okay, it’s just my fantasy. Clinton and Bush won’t apologize and atone. They won’t play truth squad. But the fact that my fantasy seems so outlandish offers a sobering commentary on our politics.

Leave aside for a moment this descent into the usual op-ed page trope of “can’t we all just get along?”  Samuelson gets a hall pass on this from me as he’s been consistently reporting on how desperate our fiscal situation has become.  If anyone has earned the right to indulge in a bit of “beyondism” (as I call the bipartisan fantasy), it is Samuelson.

More noteworthy to me is that I think Samuelson doesn’t have his political history quite right.  He says “Clinton rebuffed all efforts to get him to act,” ignoring two commissions he appointed to recommend fixes to Social Security and Medicare.  But we know from the Steven Gillon book, The Pact, that Clinton was engaging in back-channel talks with Newt Gingrich in 1997 about a possible grand deal to reform entitlements.  In outline it would have been a compromise that would have involved tax hikes (what liberals always want) and private retirement and health savings accounts (what conservatives want), and it would have made everyone uncomfortable, as most big compromises do.  (If you think Newt’s presidential prospects are remote now, this would have killed them.)  The whole thing blew up with the impeachment scandal, as liberal Democrats made a condition of their support for Clinton that he drop all talk of entitlement reform.  So in retrospect, Clinton’s behavior turns out possibly to have been a multi-trillion dollar failure—a lot more than just a personal failure.  If Clinton should apologize for anything (yes, he has lots to apologize for), he should start with this.  Next time a liberal argues, as Joe Klein did at the time, that “character doesn’t matter,” remind them of this episode and its consequences.

Samuelson also thinks Bush dropped the ball.   He’s right about Bush’s Medicare Part D. But he also says, “His effort at Social Security ‘reform’ was doomed from the start, because it included personal investment accounts that were bound to arouse ferocious opposition.”  Sigh.  Personal investment accounts are going to have to be part of any deal to fix entitlements.  Why should Bush or any other Republican surrender to the Left on this point?  Bush pushed hard for reform throughout 2005, and a nervous GOP majority in Congress, already lost in its senility and corruption, was reluctant to step up.  Then Hurricane Katrina ended whatever small prospect existed for reform, as it pummeled Bush’s already falling public support.  So in retrospect, Katrina wasn’t just a bug natural disaster—it was also a political disaster.

The point is, Samuelson is being a little unfair to both men, though his thought experiment isn’t entirely risible.  Instead of an apology tour, it might be interesting for both men to speak candidly about their experience of putting their toe in the reform waters, and having it bit off by the piranha politics of our time.

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