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Bringing the Pain

Washington pundits love to bash politicians because they won't make "painful choices" about the budget. But what happens when politicians actually do it? The pundits bash them anyway. And that's not just unfair to the politicians. It actually makes solving the country's fiscal problems more difficult.

Consider what happened on "Meet the Press" Sunday, when David Axelrod was the guest and conversation quickly turned to the report of the president’s deficit commission. Host David Gregory asked Axelrod whether all options for balancing the budget were on the table. When Axelrod refused to get into specifics, Gregory pounced:

I mean, how are you going to expect both Democrats and Republicans to make painful choices if you can't even say publicly here today that those tough issues should at least be on the table?

I have no problem with Gregory pressing Axelrod to provide details on the president’s budget priorities and beating him up a bit when Axelrod, predictably, refused. But I do have a problem with the suggestion that Obama and his allies are not willing to make "painful choices." 

Maybe Gregory didn’t follow the health care debate very closely. If he had, he might have noticed that Obama and the Democrats scaled down their health care plan significantly in order to reduce its price tag: Instead of a $1.5 trillion plan that could have covered just about everybody, starting a year or two from now, they settled on a $900 billion plan that will leave 2 to 3 percent of legal residents without insurance and that won’t fully phase in until 2014. Many observers (including me) believe this delay is a major factor in the Affordable Care Act’s lack of popularity, since most people won’t feel the law’s impact for another three years.

And that’s only part of the story. In order to make sure health care reform began to reduce the deficit, albeit modestly, Obama and the Democrats embraced a series of highly unpopular financing moves. Specifically, they imposed a tax on generous health plans and agreed to reduce future Medicare spending by more than $400 billion. They also created an independent advisory board to steer Medicare payments away from treatments, drugs, and devices that aren't as cost-effective as the alternatives. 

Economists applauded these moves and health policy experts said the result would be a stronger, higher quality Medicare program. But seniors have reacted angrily, thanks in no small part to all of the Republicans running around screaming "death panels." 

Again, the issue here isn't how the media is treating Obama, Axelrod, or any other Democrats. It's how the media is shaping the debate over curbing federal deficits over the long run. If elites don't point out and applaud politicians who are fiscally responsible--or, at the very least, if the elites don't make clear that some politicians are being more fiscally responsible than others--why would future politicians even try?