December, 2010 may go down in history as the moment when both of America's great political parties blinked.
The great stare-down over taxes and spending began in the Reagan years, when conservatives ditched their long-time preference for balanced budgets and let loose a tide of red ink. It was more than just a necessary juicing of the economy.
There was a generation of conservative ideologues who believed that they could stop the expansion of government by "starving the beast." Hold the line on tax cuts, the conservatives said, and you could throttle the liberal welfare state. Cut taxes. Win now. Ignore short-term debt. In the famous words of Dick Cheney, "Deficits don't matter."
The Republicans underestimated their Democratic foes. They expected that the liberal goody-two-shoes could be shamed into proper behavior. The Right embraced a fantasy that there was some level of debt with which the good government types on the Left could not abide. But liberals had learned from the Republican cynicism. They watched Republican Congresses and presidents cut taxes AND raise spending, and heard the voters applaud. And when the Democrats got their hands on the levers of power, they set out to beat the Republicans at the game. The Democrats started "feeding the beast," betting that the Republicans would ultimately have to concede, and raise taxes.
So the game of chicken went on. For twenty years. Until we are in the spot we're in.
And then came December when, lo and behold, both sides blinked. Democrats voted to make huge cuts in spending and Republicans voted for big tax hikes.
Don't hyper-ventilate. The blinking has not taken place in Congress yet, only in the final acts of a presidential commission on fiscal sanity led by Republican Alan Simpson and Democrat Erskine Bowles. And its actions were overshadowed by the news that President Obama had agreed with congressional Republicans on a mighty tax and stimulus deal, which would add another $900 billion or so to the federal debt. [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]
But liberals like Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Democratic whip (and Obama's former seatmate) joined with conservative Republicans like Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn and Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo to urge us to retreat from the brink. Coburn's vote, in particular, stands out. He is a sincere public servant, and a dedicated conservative who has great credibility with the grassroots. He and Crapo showed great political courage when endorsing the commission plan.
The bottom line: for the first time in twenty years, the Republican "pledge" to oppose all tax hikes has been ditched by conservative leaders, in high-profile positions.
Even more interesting: as of this morning, their political careers seem not to have unduly suffered.