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Catfood Commission II Could Hinge on Kerry

The President is reportedly disengaged from the Catfood Commission II deliberations, which is the right political play. He’s improving his standing by focusing on jobs, and the deficit reduction discussions, likely to fail, are precisely what dragged him down over the summer. So letting Congress deal with its own mess makes sense. At some point, however, you suspect that the President will have to weigh in, though he plans to not even be in the country when the deadline for recommendations hits on November 23.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that there’s not a stalking horse on the committee, someone trying to broker the very grand bargain the Administration was desperate to secure for the length of this Presidency. And it looks increasingly like that stalking horse is John Kerry.

Interestingly, the super committee member who has carved out the slenderest public profile and remains the toughest to read—Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.—made it clear he knows the following things:

• The committee has unprecedented power.

• $1.2 trillion in 10-year deficit reduction wouldn’t satisfy global bond markets, would trigger a crisis in confidence in American government, and could prolong the nation’s economic malaise.

• Tax reform could generate $1 trillion in revenue without raising rates and the super committee could create a timetable for Congress to follow next year.

• Cost-saving reform of Medicare is possible without swapping its fee-for-service mechanism now for a premium-support subsidy.

Kerry could emerge as the key figure in super committee deliberations. He will turn 68 next month. His term expires in 2014. It’s unclear if he will run again, but even if he does and prevails it appears he knows he may never have a better chance to create a durable legacy on fiscal policy, one that could augment his solid Senate work on foreign policy and national security. This is by no means clear. But there is something interesting and possibly determinative about Kerry’s line of questioning and the role he may play in building the seven-vote majority. His demeanor bears the gravity of a man who came tantalizingly close to being president.

The “things Kerry knows” are mostly bunk. The fact that Moody’s came out and said that even if the Catfood Commission II failed, they wouldn’t touch the US credit rating, suggests that there would be no “crisis of confidence.” Tax reform wouldn’t generate $1 trillion if it meant extending the Bush tax cuts, which cost the economy $3.6 trillion.

But the legacy stuff rings true. This is someone who wanted to be President. The next-best thing could be showing the kind of faux-statesmanship (because only statesmen cut old-age pensions) needed to win the hearts of the DC establishment, rehabilitating his image and putting him into the eminence grise role. I could see Kerry being seduced by that possibility.

Kerry, in other words, could be the one vote that Republicans need to push through some terrifying deficit reduction plan.

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David Dayen

David Dayen