ERSKINE BOWLES, best known as the Democratic co-chairman of the Simpson-Bowles deficit commission, is reported by The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post to be under consideration to succeed Timothy Geithner as Treasury secretary in a second Obama term. He says he doesn’t want the job, but no matter who gets elected, Bowles is angling for some kind of prominent role in any future deal on spending and taxes. Let’s not give it to him.
Bowles’s favored identity is Mr. Fix-It. He’s a technocrat who knows how to get things done. Prized for his competence and sometimes loathed for his pliability, Bowles is capable of playing a constructive role in bridging partisan differences. But his disdain for political gamesmanship, his weak attachment to party or principle, and his determination to strike a deal at any cost make him the wrong man to tame today’s Republicans.
Like a lot of technocrats, Bowles is a conservative Democrat who has struggled to find a niche in elective politics. Twice a Senate candidate in his home state of North Carolina, he was twice defeated in spite of a glittering Washington résumé: administrator of the Small Business Administration, deputy White House chief of staff, and White House chief of staff. One of his problems was a visible distaste for politics. While announcing his candidacy for the 2002 Senate race, Bowles actually made reference to “my aversion to being a politician.”
Bowles’s bigger problem was that he held all his Washington posts under Bill Clinton, who never carried North Carolina. Bowles’s early ads carefully avoided revealing his patron’s identity, but of course it was common knowledge. Clinton’s memoirs, published during Bowles’s 2004 race, called Bowles, unhelpfully, a “close friend and golfing partner.” Bowles ended up losing to Republican Richard Burr, recently identified by a pollster as “one of [America’s] most anonymous senators.”
To Bowles, the twin defeats must have felt like painful echoes of 1972, when his father, Hargrove “Skipper” Bowles, became the first Democratic gubernatorial nominee in seven decades not to enter North Carolina’s executive mansion. Skipper’s candidacy was almost certainly damaged by George McGovern’s presence at the top of the ticket, an experience that (as Kim Isaac Eisler suggested in a 1997 Washingtonian profile) left Erskine “determined to move the [Democrats] back to the center.” The problem is that the center doesn’t stand still. Since the late ’70s, it has been marching rightward. This migration will halt only when Democrats possess sufficient numbers (and inclination) to block its path.
That isn’t the Bowles way. Accommodation is more his style, and (outside the elective realm) this skill has served him well. A successful Charlotte-based investment banker, Bowles first drew Clinton’s attention by raising $1.5 million for his 1992 presidential campaign. President Clinton put him in charge of the Small Business Administration. Bowles polished up that handle so care-ful-lee that, less than two years later, Clinton moved him into the White House as deputy chief of staff, a title Bowles shared with the more liberal and more bare-knuckled Harold Ickes. Bowles immediately seized tight control of the famously undisciplined Clinton’s schedule, acquiring the cruel nickname “hall monitor.” It was Bowles who, during the 1996 Democratic Convention, was assigned to cut loose his fellow triangulator Dick Morris immediately before a tabloid exposed Morris cavorting with a prostitute. He did it so nicely that in a subsequent memoir Morris called Bowles the “one man” who’d made life in the White House “tolerable.”
It was as White House chief of staff that Bowles presided over the 1997 budget deal that eliminated the deficit and gave him his budget-expert calling card. Creating a surplus was an historic achievement, but the 1997 deal was a mixed bag. Necessary trims were made to Medicare hospital reimbursements (most of these took place) and doctor reimbursements (most of these didn’t). The 1997 deal also introduced what became Medicare Advantage, an ill-considered experiment in partial privatization that proved costlier than the government version but which Republicans will now never drop. The most troubling part of the bargain was an agreement to lower the top capital gains rate, which previously (under Ronald Reagan!) had been raised to bring it in line with the top rate on income. This, along with a lowered inheritance tax, was an extravagant and unnecessary gift to the 1 percent.
In 2010, President Obama tapped Bowles (then-president of the University of North Carolina) for the deficit commission. It was never able to reach agreement, so Bowles and Alan Simpson (the former GOP senator) released their own recommendations to cut $4 trillion from the budget over eight years. Many of the proposals were laudable, such as eliminating the capital gains preference that Bowles increased 13 years earlier. But inexplicably, Bowles and Simpson reached beyond their assigned goal (solvency) to impose a conservative framework for limited government. They proposed three dollars in spending cuts for every dollar increase in taxes, instead of splitting savings equally between the two. Even this was too much for panel member Paul Ryan, who voted against the plan. Bowles’s feeble response was to praise Ryan as “amazing. ... [H]e is honest, he is straightforward, he is sincere.” (Invited after Ryan joined the GOP ticket to revise and extend these remarks, Bowles said, “I’m not going to act like I don’t like him or that I don’t have some real respect for him.”)
Bowles and Simpson also decreed, arbitrarily, that henceforth government spending could never exceed 21 percent of GDP. (After the 2008 debt crisis, it spiked to 24 percent.) And they bought into the popular misconception that marginal tax rates, already at historic lows, need to be lowered and the number of brackets (a mere six) need to be reduced. Bowles and Simpson are so determined to impose their plan for limited government that they’ve endorsed Representative Charlie Bass, a New Hampshire Republican, on the strength of his support for Simpson-Bowles. They’ve also raised more than $25 million to conduct a national media campaign preaching their brand of deficit reduction.
It’s reasonable to conclude that Bowles is rapidly losing whatever interest he had in what the Democratic Party stands for. But that doesn’t mean, alas, that the Democrats won’t succumb to his imprimatur of Beltway respectability. They should resist. He’s not the guy they want playing their hand.
Timothy Noah is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article appeared in the November 8, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “Out of Commission.”