Obama, Boehner and ‘Rashomon’

A famous 1950 Japanese movie, “Rashomon,” describes a murder from the perspectives of four main characters who were involved in it — including the medium speaking for the murdered man. All four versions differ as to who is the real murderer. The director was asked by the actors: Who was the real murderer? The director’s response:  We don’t know, because each person was telling the truth as he or she perceived it.

Over the years, the “Rashomon effect” has become a metaphor for allowing for differences of opinion and perspectives without having to challenge the good faith or sincerity of those with different positions. Let’s apply that metaphor to the stalemate on raising the debt ceiling.

Even those who strongly disagree with President Obama and oppose his reelection should at least give him credit that he has gone way beyond halfway to support a compromise — of $4 trillion in debt reduction, $3 trillion, or 75 percent, would be spending cuts, versus 25 percent in revenue enhancements through closing tax loopholes.

I wish President Obama had embraced Simpson-Bowles — the “grand bargain” he has recently sought from Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) — a long time ago. I wrote in this space last January, just before the State of the Union, that President Obama could have used that speech to put Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles in the House Gallery, asked them to stand and challenged every member of Congress to stand, too, if they supported Simpson-Bowles. He could have paused, I wrote, and let the TV cameras pan back and forth, back and forth, allowing Americans to observe who stood up — and who didn’t.

A missed opportunity — but President Obama still deserves much credit for the guts and leadership he has shown in the last several weeks, especially taking on his base by touching the “third rail” of Social Security and Medicare reform.

Now, to be fair, let’s look at the world through John Boehner’s eyes.

Boehner leads a Republican Party with a base of Tea Party activists and purist conservatives who oppose all tax increases, whether in the form of rate increases or closure of loopholes.

The core doctrine of conservatism going back to Barry Goldwater is that the “beast” — meaning government — needs to be starved of new revenues as the only way to impose discipline on politicians’ “just say yes” instinct to support new spending, new taxing and new borrowing. Boehner in general shares these views.

It is apparent that Boehner and most GOP conservatives sincerely believe it is in the best interests of everyone — including the poor and the middle class — to reduce government and strengthen the private sector, where enduring jobs are created and long-term revenues are generated.

So there are two vastly competing views of the role of government and solving the debt crisis, who should pay and how the pain should be spread. This is what the 2012 election should be about, so let the debate begin. It can be a civil debate and the country will be better-informed — and have a clear choice — come Election Day.

But first, there will — there must — be a compromise to avoid default on the nation’s debt. The Democratic Senate and House Republican debt-raising proposals are not that far apart. Both give up increasing revenues through closing tax loopholes. Too bad, since polls show a large majority of Americans support that position. The proposals would make comparable spending cuts. Both establish a supra-congressional committee to effectuate a “grand bargain” on the national debt similar to Simpson-Bowles — it’s about time.

The basic difference is the GOP House proposal would require a new decision six months from now (during the 2012 presidential campaign season) and the Democratic version would extend the debt ceiling until after the election. Do you think either side is thinking about presidential politics in these two positions?

One thing is clear — to find a solution, both sides need to apply the lessons of “Rashomon”:  Assume the sincerity and good faith of the other side, and reach out to find a compromise. Every poll shows 80 percent or more support for compromise.

The American people expect — and deserve — no less.

Mr. Davis is the principal in the Washington D.C. law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, which specializes in strategic crisis management and is a partner with Josh Block in the strategic communications and public affairs company Davis-Block. He served as President Clinton’s Special Counsel in 1996-98 and as a member of President Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board in 2006-07. He is the author of “Scandal:  How ‘Gotcha’ Politics Is Destroying America” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006). He can be found on Facebook and Twitter (@LannyDavis).