It was the starchiest of all pep rallies, a gathering of bipartisan worthies in the Ronald Reagan office building near the White House. They assembled to cheer on President Barack Obama's newly launched commission, which has the seemingly doomed mission of coming up with a cure for the nation's runaway debts and deficits.
Prodded by former Commerce Secretary Peter G. Peterson, a throwback to the 1970s type of moderate Republican, and his charitable foundation, several hundred representatives from business and academe turned out to hear former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming and former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles describe their hopes for the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, whose first meeting they had convened the day before.
Simpson, blunt as always, had publicly acknowledged that they were on "a suicide mission," whose recommendations might well antagonize both Democrats and Republicans. Those gathered in the Reagan building including former President Bill Clinton, former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, former Federal Reserve Chairmen Alan Greenspan and Paul Volcker, former Congressional Budget Office Directors Alice Rivlin and Robert Reischauer, and current budget chief Peter Orszag insisted that however tough the odds, the crisis demands action.
Rubin told the audience that he had never been as alarmed about the country's fiscal future. Greenspan added, "We've got to get this problem solved, sooner rather than later."
Clinton said that as foreign countries buy up almost half the national debt, controlling its growth "is a national sovereignty issue." When the former president was asked by CBS News' Bob Schieffer what advice he would give the commission, he said he was more hopeful than many others because of the character of the co-chairmen. Acknowledging that Republicans oppose any talk of tax increases and Democrats are adamantly against reductions in Social Security and Medicare, Clinton said Bowles and Simpson "are free enough to disregard the polls, but they are smart enough to take them into account."
The daylong discussion strongly suggested that the commission will not waste much time looking for a "magic bullet" no one has ever thought of before, but rather will start searching at once for the trade-offs between tax hikes and entitlement cuts that might enlist support among the 18 members, and then in Congress.
The day pointed up two big barriers to that search. First, senior Republicans in Congress were conspicuous by their absence. The most prestigious GOP speakers currently serving were Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the ranking members of the Senate and House budget committees and both members of the Bowles-Simpson commission.
You could not ignore the fact that they were the most outspoken in questioning whether both tax hikes and spending cuts had to be part of the solution. And commission rules require that at least four of the eight Republicans among its 18 members agree before any recommendations are forwarded to Congress. That will be a stretch.
The other thing that became clear is that no one yet has developed the kind of down-home language that could translate the issues at the center of the Reagan building discussion into everyday language. There is no Ross Perot doing that job as the Texas billionaire did with his chart talks during his eccentric 1992 presidential campaign.
The grass-roots political force that logically should be spurring Congress and the president to tackle these ruinous deficits is the tea party movement. But it does not speak the same language as does Peterson's billion-dollar foundation or the intellectual heavyweights assembled in the Reagan Building. Their declaration that "our current national debt is $12.9 trillion, or nearly 90 percent of GDP," is not the battle cry that will send Sarah Palin's ardent admirers into the streets.
Peterson's foundation could do the country a favor by uncovering a credible populist Republican who will buck his party's orthodoxy and take that message of fiscal responsibility to the country.
E-mail nationally syndicated columnist David Broder at firstname.lastname@example.org.