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Truth and Consequences: Or What Happens When The Election Ends

Former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson, a Republican, and former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles, a Democrat, have been to this rodeo before. That’s why they waited one week and one day to drop their post-election bombshell.

By releasing a set of draft recommendations weeks ahead of an announced deadline, the co-chairmen of the president’s bipartisan deficit reduction commission delivered a sharp admonishment to everyone who ran toward and against Washington last week: put up or shut up.

The report — which proposes slashing sacred cows left and right in order to cut $3.8 trillion over 10 years — delivered a bracing shot of clarity in the middle of a week otherwise devoted to politicians in search of apparently nonexistent middle ground.

Everyone was caught off guard by the commission’s recommendations – from the Tea Party partisans who got elected on pledges to abolish earmarks and extend tax cuts – to the wounded and shrunken Democrats, who’d spent the week blaming each other for last week’s defeats.

The shock that greeted the report was in some ways a refreshing turn of events in a city still looking backward at what happened rather than forward to what comes next.

Licking one’s wounds and claiming the spoils of war come naturally in a political environment as charged as this one. Even as scattered states were still counting votes, Washington lawmakers fell into leadership squabbles sparked by Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to stay in the fight as the new Minority Leader, and Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann’s short-lived try for a leadership post.

Can you guess which party is still squabbling?

Even more navel-gazing was brought about by this week’s publication of George W. Bush’s presidential memoir, “Decision Points.” Launching a high-profile book tour that took him from Matt Lauer’s couch to Oprah Winfrey’s to Sean Hannity’s, the former president steadfastly refused to comment on anything having to do with the present or the future. Talking about that, he said in each venue, would only drag him back into what he called “the swamp.”

One can hardly fault President Bush for sidestepping the political quicksand that seems to surround every idle comment these days. But that meant that his reemergence brought us back relentlessly to a reexamination of the Bush era – from Saddam Hussein to Kanye West.

Messrs. Simpson and Bowles would not allow us to stay there. Cut the budget for the Pentagon and other agencies by $200 billion a year, they said. Eliminate $100 billion in popular tax credits and deductions. Reduce farm subsidies and government retiree benefits. Overhaul Social Security.

With so many sacred cows on the cutting block at one time, it’s no wonder that Simpson – who possesses a well-known sharp wit -told reporters that he and Bowles would, “be on the witness protection list when this is over.”

Except I don’t think he was joking.

Americans get this. According to the latest survey from the Pew Center for the People and the Press, voters remain skeptical and pessimistic that Republicans and Democrats are willing to find middle ground.

We’ll see if they’re right. The first test of the fallout from the midterm elections will come well before the newly constituted Congress even takes office in January. Lawmakers – many of them still limping – will return to Washington next week for an inordinately consequential lame duck session.

On the agenda: nuclear treaties, gays in the military, budget resolutions and tax cuts.

In other words, there will be plenty of opportunities for the victors and the vanquished to … put up or shut up.

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the Washington Week website. Click here for the list of guests on this Friday’s roundtable.

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