The curse of the rosy scenario

Decades before the advent of the little blue pill, a mid-sized, somewhat pudgy doctor once confided the essential secret of Washington’s upwardly aspiring men. "Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac," said Dr. Henry Kissinger.

Today we are focusing upon the fact that once men once they rise to the capital’s height of power — the presidency and the Office of Management and budget directorship — they cannot resist the lure of Washington’s seemingly irresistible femme fatal.

You know her when you see her. She is Rosy Scenario.

In recent weeks, we have watched yet again as Washington’s two most powerful men became powerless and succumbed to the charms of the ageless Rosy. No matter what they may have said on their climb to the pinnacle — back when they disparaged their opposition for dishing unrealistic optimism and even selling snake oil — once they enter office it is only a matter of time before they start keeping company with this woman they once scorned.

Rosy Scenario turns up at their elbows during those Washingtonian equivalents of red carpet events — the press conferences. The mere sight of her has always set the town criers, pundits and gossips (please pardon my redundancy) to twittering, way before any of us knew what a Twitter was.

(Time Out: You may have noticed that we have only talked about male presidents and OMB directors, yet there was one woman director of OMB. Dr. Alice Rivlin served admirably in the job during President Clinton’s first term. She was a widely regarded as a truth-teller, a rare budgeter that eschewed rosy scenarios while helping Bill Clinton lay the groundwork for transforming an inherited huge deficit into a surplus, a result that seems like sheer fantasy today. Because she did well, this isn’t about her. Come to think of it, this may be the only column that could begin as it did and not be about him, either. Moving on.)

During the Reagan years, Office of Management and Budget Director David Stockman worked hard at selling the virtues of Reaganomics. He dazzled Washington with rosy scenario contentions that America could balance its budget while sharply cutting taxes and sharply increasing domestic spending — because of anticipated rosy assumptions of strong economic growth. But the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office countered that Stockman’s assumptions were rosy scenarios. CBO was proven right. America’s national debt quadrupled in the Reagan years. And Stockman later confessed that he’d deliberately misled us all.

In the years that followed, the CBO often found itself taking the more conservative economic position that OMB’s figures were based upon rosy assumptions. Liberals rushed to embrace that conservative view — as long as Republicans were running the White House. In 2007-2008, the CBO’s director, Peter Orszag made that very case.

Now this. Obama became president and picked Orszag as OMB director. Cogitating from his new perch, OMB’s 41-year-old director issued his new budget projections. And Orszag’s old CBO pals labeled them as rosy scenarios. Their two paint-by-the-numbers big pictures were off by trillions of dollars. The Obama-Orszag’s OMB guesstimated a 10 year deficit of almost $7 trillion — the sans-Orszag CBO deficit was almost $9.3 trillion.

Put another way, the CBO said Obama’s sweeping budget — which cuts taxes for the middle classes, overhauls health care, bails out financial and other corporate behemoths, winds down the Iraq war while stepping up the Afghanistan war and helps rebuild both — will expand the national debt to 82 percent of the U.S. economy by 2019. That, Orszag conceded to reporters, would "not be sustainable."

No expert — from Volcker to Greenspan to Masters and Johnson — has been able to explain why these middle aged men seemingly cannot resist Rosy’s charms once they reach the top.

Apparently they see everything coming up rosy. The rest of us just see red.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)