BOB GARFIELD: On Wednesday, the 12 members of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction failed to reach an agreement in advance of their Thanksgiving week deadline.
The so-called “Supercommittee” of six Republicans and six Democrats was created last summer to cut the deficit by more than a trillion dollars. It had just a few months to get the job done, or else automatic cuts would be triggered, including a big chunk out of the Pentagon's budget. Most of the media saw the inability to reach an agreement as a colossal failure.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: While President Obama thought that by avoiding being directly involved in the Supercommittee's negotiations he would avoid being blamed for any super fail, well he was wrong.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The Deficit Supercommittee ended in a super failure...
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The Supercommittee’s super failure leaves the country facing more than a trillion dollars in painful across-the-board cuts.
BILL O’REILLY: I’m Bill O'Reilly. Thanks for watching us tonight. Congress insults the American people. That is the subject of this evening's Talking Points Memo. It's really embarrassing, really embarrassing.
BOB GARFIELD: But, according to New York Magazine politics writer Jonathan Chait, the Supercommittee was not a failure at all. It successfully accomplished, he says, exactly what it was created for.
JONATHAN CHAIT: Which was get us out of the debt ceiling crisis. We were stuck in a Cuban missile crisis situation. The Supercommittee was the way out. If the Committee didn’t report back with its 1.2 trillion dollars in deficit cuts, cuts would automatically take place. But they wouldn’t take place until 2013.
So the timing of this, I think, was very cleverly constructed to just delay everything and make the Tea Party kind of forget about the debt ceiling. And it worked. No one's talking about the debt ceiling, and we’re gonna get through the election without risking economic chaos.
BOB GARFIELD: The narrative in most of the press is that this was, in fact, a tremendous failure to come up with a solution that both parties could stomach. You say it was never about that at all. Are you saying that what we've just witnessed is six months of political theater?
JONATHAN CHAIT: It is in the sense that there was never going to be a bipartisan agreement to cut the deficit. It's just too contrary to the ideology of the Republican Party. They’re interested in cutting spending and they’re interested in cutting taxes. They'll use the deficit as a kind of rhetorical device to try to create pressure for a solution that does those things. But they're not going to agree to something that creates any kind of balanced deficit reduction proposal between taxes and spending, because that’s just not what they want.
BOB GARFIELD: If you're right, no compromise was possible from the very outset. And, therefore, the, the story has been misreported. Is it as simple as that?
JONATHAN CHAIT: It is as simple as that. I think the story has been misreported. You have to have neutral reporting. So to me, the neutral thing to do would be to say, “We're not gonna take a position on whether reducing the deficit is really important but we will describe the positions of the two parties.” And the positions are the Democrats are willing to do a kind of balanced solution between cutting entitlement programs that they’d rather not cut in return for higher revenue. And the Republicans are not willing to accept a compromise like that.
Instead, the media has all very heavily leapt on the bandwagon of, we need to cut the deficit. They treat this as an obvious truth. So because they're openly rooting for cutting the deficit in order to come out with a balanced picture at the end, they have to paint it like both sides are equally to blame.
And this has happened through commission after commission and process after process and negotiation after negotiation. There's simply been no way to budge the Republican Party off this stance. There's this persistent denial that you’ve seen in the news media. They simply won’t allow themselves to accept what they’re actually saying.
BOB GARFIELD: As Thanksgiving approached, the press ran sort of a doomsday clock on the Supercommittee. And if they continued to be deadlocked and failed to act and these automatic cuts were triggered, more than a trillion dollars, you know, you got the notion that we were going to have to ground the Air Force and call the ships into harbor, so severe was the automatic trigger. Was that irresponsible, in the end?
JONATHAN CHAIT: Yes, that was irresponsible. There are two problems with the media’s hysteria on this question. Number one, the Supercommittee was not really designed to reduce the deficit. The Supercommittee was designed to get us out of the debt ceiling crisis.
Number two, the trigger for the Supercommittee doesn't actually take place until 2013, when we also have the expiration of the Bush tax cuts. So what we really have is a big setup for some kind of fiscal reckoning in 2013, which will be triggered by the results of the 2012 elections. So nothing really happens with the failure of the Supercommittee. And nothing can really be expected to happen until the elections are over.
BOB GARFIELD: Jonathan, thank you so much.
JONATHAN CHAIT: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Jonathan Chait is a writer for New York Magazine.