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July 29, 2011

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Listen up, Washington; we've been there
By William S Cohen

William S. Cohen was a Republican U.S. senator from Maine and served as secretary of defense under President Clinton. He is chairman of the Cohen Group, an international business consulting firm.

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Since leaving the Senate 14 years ago, I have witnessed a further gravitational pull away from center-based politics to the extremes on both the right and left. Those who seek compromise and consensus are increasingly depicted with scorn as a "mushy middle" that is weak and unprincipled. By contrast, those who plant their feet in the concrete of ideological absolutism are heralded as heroic defenders of truth, justice and the American way.

We are now seeing the costs of this lurch away from the center. Our country is in crisis, and Washington is paralyzed. The American people, and the global markets, are losing confidence in the ability of our government to function. They see our ship of state sinking under the weight of too much debt. But instead of all hands on deck working together to bail out the ship, elected leaders of both parties are engaged in rhetorical finger-pointing when they should be engaged in practical problem-solving.

The tea party has done our country a great service by forcing Washington to deal with the debt, an issue that we have been evading and avoiding for decades. Our country has been engaged in fiscal child abuse. With each passing year, we are inflicting damage upon our children and grandchildren that we cannot see but that they will feel for their lifetime. It used to be that parents borrowed money to make life better for their children; now, they are borrowing from their kids to make life better for themselves. This has to end.

Responding to the popular uprising for fiscal discipline, President Obama did something unheard of for a Democratic president: He put Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid on the table. He offered Republicans a "grand bargain" that came mostly their way: 80% spending cuts in exchange for 20% in new tax revenues. Moreover, two-thirds of those new revenues -- $800 billion -- would have come not from tax increases but tax reform and the creation of a flatter, fairer system.

When someone offers you a deal like that, you grab it -- and I suspect House Speaker John Boehner would have done so. But he had 87 revolutionaries in the House telling him not to compromise. The difficulty he is having trying to pass a short-term deal shows how difficult it would have been for him to sell a grand bargain to his caucus.

And even if the speaker had agreed to such a deal, Obama does not have enough support in his own party to pass the grand bargain he put on the table. He would have faced a gargantuan challenge selling that 80-20 compromise to Democrats on Capitol Hill, whose centrist ranks have also been thinned considerably.

Where does that leave us as August 2 approaches? Obama has said he will not sign a short-term deal, but Republicans believe that with default looming, the president has to blink. They may be right.

We will likely get a short-term solution and revisit this debate in four to six months' time -- in all likelihood with similar results. A long-term solution to our national debt will continue to elude us unless and until both sides recognize their moral imperative to come together and address this crisis.

Republicans and Democrats are equally responsible for racking up this debt. And they share equal responsibility for solving it. Instead of blaming each other and demanding capitulation, both sides must move back to the center -- back toward consensus, and, yes, compromise.

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