Why We Must Spring The President's Budget Trap

As we learned from Allah yesterday, House Republicans are going after the big entitlement programs in the 2012 budget. We all know we can’t get control of government spending until we wrestle Medicaid and Social Security into submission, but we also know this is likely to be the toughest political fight most of us have seen in our lifetimes. President Bush took a run at Social Security reform in 2005, but was undone in part by Republicans who lacked the courage to breathe the words “partial privatization” within 100 yards of a registered voter.

The GOP is about to walk into a similar situation. This time the impetus for reform lies with the House leadership, who will have to bull rush President Obama into any reform that doesn’t solely consist of ridiculously large tax increases on rich people. At this point, most of America opposes such basic reforms as raising the retirement age, even if the raise is phased in over several years. A poll taken by USA Toda/Gallup this past September showed that though Americans believe overwhelmingly that Social Security will present a real economic problem if it’s not reformed, they also overwhelmingly oppose raising Social Security taxes or reducing benefits.

So, here’s the trap. President Obama has all but dared Republicans to jump on that third rail, even though we can not let Social Security and Medicare continue their current budget-eating courses. Our natural impulse is to step back as well and let things implode, then blame Barack Obama for the wreckage, but we all know we can’t simply leave things the way we are. We love our children and grandchildren far too much to leave them with a mess it will take their entire lifetimes to repair.

There is some good news, though, which leads me to believe that with just a little political deftness and some blunt honesty, we conservatives can not only fix the entitlement mess but fix it in a way that turns the President’s trap against him.

First, let me recommend Ace’s piece on the current situation (language alert. It’s Ace, you know that). He has some very good advice, which involves more substantial cuts to the discretionary domestic part of the budget so that we can show that entitlement reforms are an absolute necessity when those cuts don’t transform the economy into the House of Happy Rainbow Unicorns. He thinks the hard medicine we’ll have to serve will probably cost the GOP the White House in 2012 and seats in the House and Senate and he could well be right. I’m not entirely sure, though.

Consider this recent poll from July of last year. Some 60 percent of non-retired America believes that Social Security won’t pay them a benefit when they retire, including about 75 percent of young adults. Over half of those who have already retired believe their benefits will get cut. The public is already primed for the bad news the Republicans will need to deliver. The trick will be to deliver the bad news Obama-style. Republicans ought to be heading to the microphones now to commiserate with America over how bad entitlements look, then point their fingers right in the faces of the overspending, over-promising, do-anything-for-a-vote Democrats who let things get this bad. Now, strictly speaking, Democrats aren’t entirely to blame, but this is politics and it’s time to play some hardball.

The other story which gives me some hope that the GOP can get real reforms without taking an electoral bath is this little blurb from Andrew Malcolm that shows America isn’t buying the “Recovery Summer, Autumn, Winter, and Maybe Spring” line from the administration. If folks like Paul Ryan can establish themselves as trustworthy with the bad news, there’s a very good chance that America will believe them when they show us how the hard reforms will provide a way out.

Like Ace said, there is no easy way to fix the entitlements problem. The President has set a trap he hopes will destroy Republican hopes for 2012 and give him an easy run to the White House. However, I think he’s overestimated his own cleverness and underestimated how little the American people think of his Super Genius-ness. If the GOP is smart, they’ll step boldly into the trap and show the President just what a backfire looks like from the bad end.