The President & Mr. Simpson

It was a big news day yesterday.  A domestic terrorist set his house on fire then crashed his plane into an IRS office. Bows were taken and barbs were thrown over the effect of the stimulus. Someone started a grass-roots campaign to get ’80s folk rocker John Mellencamp to run for Evan Bayh’s open Senate seat from Indiana.

But none of that ultimately matters. Joseph Andrew Stack III will ultimately be remembered as just another angry, impotent white Texan with a grudge against the guvmint. The stimulus did create jobs, regardless of what Republicans say when they’re not grinning with oversized, cardboard-prop checks in their hands or begging the administration for alms. And Cougar, Democrat for Senate? Cool. Finally, there’ll be GOP rallies that won’t feature his music.

But the real news is the establishment of the National Commission On Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, President Obama’s bipartisan panel to recommend ways to cut the deficit and the debt it accumulates. (If you’re wondering, “Hey, why isn’t Congress doing that?” it means you were paying attention in social studies class when you were in high school, but haven’t been paying attention lately.) And the real news behind the news is who the President got to chair the commission (that’s “chair,” Conservatives, not “czar”).

The Democrat at the top is Erskine Bowles. I actually met this guy at some show-up-and-they’ll-feed-you event when I was going to grad school in Washington and he was a Clintonian functionary whose fundraising talents got him a job heading the Small Business Administration. A short time later, Bill Clinton named Bowles to be his chief of staff. Bowles struck me as a decent enough guy, but a typical, gray, Washington insider. Still, he holds the distinction of being chief of staff of the first administration since Nixon’s to balance a budget (and the last).

That Obama could find a qualified Democrat to serve isn’t surprising. That he could find a qualified Republican to co-chair is more so. Don’t get me wrong: There are plenty who are qualified, but who’d be willing to serve? The CPAC crowd isn’t exactly lining up for photo ops with the President.

Enter former Senator Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.). Unfortunate name, really. Quick: Identify someone else named “Simpson”! Jessica. Ashlee. Homer. Bart.


But Alan will be the name’s saving grace.

Nobody will mistake Alan Simpson for a liberal. He was senator from Wyoming back when Dick Cheney was the state’s congressman. He was whip when Bob Dole was the minority leader who scuttled healthcare reform when the Clintons were pushing it. He is a lifelong gun enthusiast. As a senator, he chaired and served as ranking member on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee (not that this last is strictly a red-blue distinction).

But he’s a different breed of Republican than is running the party today. This is his valedictory. His record speaks for itself and he doesn’t have to be concerned about looking “less conservative” than a potential primary challenger. He recognizes that the federal debt is too serious to play politics with, that compromise is necessary, that the next generation of Americans aren’t going to care who was a Republican and who was a Democrat, especially if they can’t afford heat in winter. He understands that sometimes you need to eat some vegetables along with all that red meat. In short, Alan Simpson believe “Country First” isn’t just a prop to hold up a podium.

His clearheadedness and lack of rancor are refreshing, but I take no comfort that the Mitch McConnells and John Boehners of the world stand in such stark contrast to this truly substantial individual.

He’s taking on America’s thorniest problem. He’s being reviled by his own party. And he’s doing it with a smile on his face. As grim as his task is, he’s attacking it with a smile on his face. If you don’t like him because he’s a conservative, or if you don’t like him because you don’t think he’s conservative enough, check out his PBS interview:

Maybe, hopefully, this is a sign of things to come: a return to a Republican Party that differs from the Democratic Party on substantive issues, not just engaging in a zero-sum game of being against everything the other side is for.

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