The welfare state won this budget war

The conventional wisdom holds that Republicans, hostage to the Tea Party, prevented a larger and more “balanced” deal by their rejection of any tax increases — ever. Not so. It’s true that Republicans were unbending on taxes and, at times, reckless in their rhetoric. It’s also true that, even with sizable spending cuts, tax increases will ultimately be needed to balance the budget. But it’s not true that only the right blocked a more comprehensive agreement.

Although Obama said he was willing to trim “entitlements” — presumably, Social Security and Medicare — he never laid out specific proposals or sought public support for them. There was more talk than action. Even if Obama had been more aggressive, he probably wouldn’t have carried most liberals, who adamantly oppose cuts. They regard Social Security and Medicare as sacrosanct. Not a penny is to be trimmed from benefits.

This is an extreme, even fanatical stance. Social Security and Medicare do create a safety net for many millions of poor and near-poor retirees. But for millions of wealthier retirees, they are handouts.