CNBC.com joined the smoke-signal gang early last week, passing along remarks from another Democrat, Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado. “I would want to put Bowles-Simpson in place immediately,” he sai, contending that it would cut spending, simplify the tax code, and fix Medicare and Social Security. Neither Udall nor CNBC told us how it would do all that.
On NBC’s Meet the Press in early May, former Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw signaled acceptance of Simpson-Bowles even more. “There’s something to keep your eye on, Brokaw announced. “There’s a kind of nascent movement at the moment to dust off Simpson-Bowles. To get it back on the table again.” He continued:
“Nancy Pelosi said the other day that she could probably live with it. This was a big miss on the part of the president, even among his admirers, when that bipartisan commission worked very hard, came up—a lot of tough medicine involved there.”
Brokaw also told NBC viewers: “Jamie Dimon, who is the head of Chase Manhattan Bank, who was a big supporter of the president the last time around, he came out and said, ‘Simpson-Bowles.’” Brokaw noted that Nancy Pelosi had also said “Simpson-Bowles.” “A number of people are finding that as maybe the kind of nexus so you can break the gridlock,” he reported.
Such signals raise important questions: Are cuts to Social Security and Medicare part of a grand bargain, modeled on Simpson-Bowles, now within reach? Have political elites agreed on solutions to the deficit problem?
All of which brings me back to the public: What about the ordinary people those solutions would affect? What might those effects be? And what do ordinary people have to say about them? On such questions, the media have been mostly silent.
It may be acceptable for media to act as a conduit for politicians and business moguls. Their announcements and pronouncement fit some definitions of news. And it is certainly a press job to air debate and discussion about a proposal as momentous as Simpson-Bowles.
It’s not acceptable, though, to merely pass along the notion that the Beltway elites are warming up to something as important and far-reaching as the Simpson-Bowles plan without cluing in the public about what’s in store for them if it were to pass. Sound bites don’t do it. Neither does explanatory shorthand that describes the proposal so benignly as a “mix of tax hikes and spending cuts.” Right now Simpson-Bowles is a solution without explanation. (In coming days, we’ll post a Simpson-Bowles explainer on CJR.org that might help reporters and editors.)
Simpson-Bowles is big. In the end the public may well decide that the specific benefit cuts and tax hikes it calls for are fine. And presumably they’ll eventually make their feelings about those cuts and hikes, one way or another, known at the voting machine—if they understand them. Udall himself said: “If I couldn’t be reelected because Bowles-Simpson made some people mad, I could live with that.” That’s what democracy is about, isn’t it.