Jon Walker was basically right about Erskine Bowles’ op-ed in the Washington Post today, criticizing Mitt Romney’s tax plan. Romney has been trying to associate his plan with Bowles-Simpson when the two have little in common. But I was more distressed last night by the fact that Obama campaign bigwig Stephanie Cutter approvingly tweeted out the Bowles op-ed. Despite the shift to the left for the election, this indicated that the President still actively sought a “grand bargain,” along the lines of Bowles-Simpson, that would cut crucial safety net programs in exchange for a token amount of revenue. We got more evidence of this yesterday, in an article about President Obama and the media where he mused about how he doesn’t get enough credit for being willing to cut Social Security and Medicare. And now, we have he coup de grâce. Ezra Klein, who has impeccable sources inside the Administration, makes a bet that Bowles will succeed Tim Geithner as Treasury Secretary in an Obama second term. And, he would be there specifically to secure a deal along the lines of the grand bargain.
Bowles, a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, had built up a huge storehouse of bipartisan credibility as co-chair of the Simpson-Bowles Commission. He didn’t want to join the administration in 2011, when joining the administration meant trench warfare with the Republicans. And as Bowles assiduously worked to show off how bipartisan he was — lavishly complimenting Rep. Paul Ryan, for instance — the administration cooled on him in return.
But next year is different. Next year is the year the fiscal deal has to be made. And if Bowles is Treasury Secretary, he’ll be the guy making the deal. That’s way better than leading a commission. It’s even better than being well-liked by both sides. That’s legacy material.
Klein goes on to explain that Bowles is beloved by the right, and by Wall Street. He has “market experience” by virtue of serving on the board of directors at Morgan Stanley, which we’re supposed to take as a point in his favor. Klein sees the Bowles op-ed as an indication that he’s willing to be a team player and help the President in his re-election efforts, perhaps to secure that coveted spot at Treasury.
What is the sum total of Bowles’ record? What primes him for this position? He worked at Morgan Stanley and in the corporate world his entire life until the 1990s; ran the Small Business Administration for about a year under Clinton; became chief of staff from January 1997 to October 1998, during which time he tried to broker a deal on Social Security with Newt Gingrich and would have succeeded if it weren’t for the Lewinsky affair; ran unsuccessfully twice for Senate in North Carolina; and then did Bowles-Simpson. He’s never been elected, doesn’t have a whole lot in the way of accomplishments other than being a Clinton-era crony, and has throughout his public life exhibited a passion for cutting the safety net.
So will it matter that the name “Erskine Bowles” is pretty poisonous to a substantial segment of the party Obama hopes to lead once more. No, says Klein:
There are downsides to Bowles, too. He’ll want the White House to go further than they’ve been willing to go on long-term health costs. But they’re prepared to do that once taxes are on the table. He’s also quite disliked by the left, which frequently refers to the Simpson-Bowles Commission as “the Catfood Commission.” That’s a drawback, but the Obama administration has always prized holding the center over placating the left. Indeed, Obama, who ran in 2008 as a post-partisan uniter and is unexpectedly and unhappily having to run a much more traditional and partisan campaign in 2012, might see that as a benefit. If he can press the reset button after this election, he’s going to do it.
I completely agree with Klein here. Obama never gave up the dream of the grand bargain, and it would be perfectly in character to go back after the election and, in the name of unity, seek a bipartisan budget deal, and put Erskine Bowles in charge of getting it done.
Bowles has been wanting to cut Social Security for 15 years, and he continually makes false claims about the program’s solvency. This would be the man entrusted with the most important fiscal policy position in the country, if Klein is right.