The Ghost of Paul Simon Haunts Obama

Major Garrett

Washington has long since forgotten the late Sen. Paul Simon, an Illinois Democrat who came to politics a most unnatural way. Simon was a journalist first, academic second, and politician third. Anyone who can build a credible life in politics — Simon was in the House from 1975 to 1985 and the Senate from 1985 to 1997 — after being immersed in the cesspool of journalism and the cloister of academia commands respect.

Those who either knew or covered Simon felt as if there was another profession he had but never admitted to: clergyman. Within the caustic and cynical word of politics, Simon had an almost clerical mien. Sure, he cast his share of “home” votes and sided with leadership. Simon’s clericalism wasn’t obsessive.

Except on one issue — deficit reduction.

Simon the cleric was, within his party, an apostate. He routinely cosponsored a balanced-budget amendment. Doing so infuriated party leaders and President Clinton, whose war room had to badger Senate Democrats to engineer defeat of the amendment in 1995 by one vote — persuading six who voted for it a year and a day before to vote “no.” 

Before that vote, Simon said increasing federal deficits and debt loads threatened future spending not just on entitlements, but everything else. “If we do not act, interest payouts will spiral upward until they consume not only Social Security, but also health care, education, and transportation,” he said. In his own whimsical reformation of President Kennedy’s tax-cutting-leads-to-economic-growth mantra of the early 1960s, Simon warned in the mid-1990s that “a rising tide of red ink sinks all boats.”

Clinton’s victory in defeating the balanced-budget amendment stands as a watershed political moment of his presidency. It allowed him to chart balanced-budget politics on his terms and keep his party unified as he did so — which allowed him to seek renomination unchallenged and win a second term.

It’s no coincidence Simon retired the next year.

The 1995 vote was his fiscal high-water mark and a deflating one at that. Simon endured for years the ridicule for standing at balanced-budget press conferences with all manner of Reagan-inspired antigovernment tightwads. He consistently told liberals his approach to fiscal conservatism was the only way they could, over the long haul, protect discretionary spending from the ravenous maw of entitlement spending. An aging population, Simon reasoned, meant lawmakers in future years would devour discretionary spending — the fundamentals of day-to-day government — before touching Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

He was not an apostate but, one might say, an apostle. Upon Simon’s retirement, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the Democrat who battled his balanced-budget amendment most aggressively, said the following: “No one has opposed it with more intensity than I have opposed it, but that does not gainsay the fact that he was a very worthy protagonist and supporter of that amendment.” Byrd then quoted the New Testament. “Paul the Apostle said, ‘Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just.’ I think these typify the life and actions of Paul Simon.”

History renders its own verdict, usually over time and often long after some of the central players have, like Simon, faded from memory. But the continuing resolution that President Obama signed silently and invisibly Tuesday is proof that Simon was correct about the implications of deficits, debt, and the fragility of discretionary spending when trapped between the numbers and politics of both.

For context, Simon entered the House in 1975 and began agitating for a balanced budget in the Reagan years. In 1994, Simon would cite the following statistic: When Reagan was elected in 1980 the national debt was $909 billion and the per capita slice of that debt was $4,012. Simon would worriedly observe that, in 1994, the debt was $4.8 trillion and the per capita allocation $18,636. Talk about the good old days. The current debt load of $16.7 trillion allocates per capita at $53,277.

Hence sequestration. It grew out of the clash over raising the debt ceiling and amounts to the most systematic effort by Obama and Congress to cut spending — all but a sliver of Medicare coming from discretionary accounts. Just as Simon warned.

Ironically, Simon predicted the dilemma Obama, another Illinois Democrat, has faced. He also warned if actions were not taken in the 1980s and 1990s, even liberal Democrats in future years would have to cut government in ways they opposed.

The White House blames sequestration entirely on Republicans. Fine. But Obama was there at sequestration’s inception, and he signed the law that set across-the-board spending cuts — which the White House demanded hold entitlement spending harmless — in motion.

Obama did not find a way to derail sequestration via “super committee” or fiscal-cliff negotiations. And he didn’t in the tepid talks over altering, averting, or reshaping sequestration within the continuing resolution. What he did was add jokes about the sequester to his Gridiron comic stylings.

That Obama dislikes sequestration is clear. That he has once and will soon for the second time embed it in federal law is also clear. Even more clear, by signing the CR Obama has by his own hand undercut, if not derailed, the very spending priorities and policies set forth in his postelection State of the Union address.

Like Simon, Obama also entered politics through an unusual path. Both aspired to the presidency. Simon lost nobly but without much fanfare. Obama won. Simon drew much of his political instincts from rural-central and Southern Illinois, where he first owned community newspapers. Obama succeeded in his first Senate campaign by overcoming initial doubts among rural voters in that same territory. Obama is much more Chicago than Springfield, Salem, or Carbondale, but he wouldn’t have succeeded initially without them.

Sequestration therefore yields a rare geographic, political, and historical irony. Simon says. Obama does.