The third rail, again

    Republicans insist that they’re prepared to touch the third rail of American politics, that they will soon propose to reform Social Security and Medicare by cutting future benefits. As House Speaker John Boehner declared over the weekend, “To not address entitlement programs (in the ’12 federal budget) would be an economic and moral failure.” Republicans also keep insisting that “the American people” support this bold endeavor.Actually, most Americans are saying precisely the opposite. People may say in the abstract that government is too big and that government spends too much, but today, just as in the past, they still bridle at the idea of cutting Social Security and Medicare. (This is not surprising. Self interest will generally trump abstraction. Tea partiers like to rail against “socialism,” but how many of them have vocally volunteered to sacrifice some of their own entitlement benefits?)So, given these political realities, I question whether Republican leaders will truly follow through on their vows to cut entitlement programs, even when pushed by their tea-party House freshmen. As one Republican insider recently admitted to Politico, “None of the options polls well.”This is one of those situations where timidity is smart politics, and boldness is tantamount to political suicide. President Obama has clearly chosen the former. He refuses to touch entitlement reform; last December, his own deficit commission proposed big entitlement cuts, tax hikes to stabilize the programs for the long haul, and a higher Social Security retirement age, but he has offered only a rousing non-endorsement (“I disagree with some of the framework”). In essence, he’s daring the Republicans to go first and take the political hit.Republicans are banging Obama for his timidity, but it’s easy to see why he has taken that route. If he was to publicly endorse the deficit commission’s pitch for higher taxes, and take that idea to Capitol Hill, Republicans would predictably assail him as a tax-hiking liberal socialist. Obama knows that game, which is why he won’t play it. Better to let the GOP play by itself.We keep hearing that House Republicans intend to do that, that they soon will unveil an ambitious entitlement-cutting plan. And apparently they have deluded themselves into believing they have a mandate for doing so. Former Republican congresswoman and current talking head Susan Molinari contended on MSNBC last night: “I think the American people told the Republicans, when they elected them to the (House) majority, that they wanted this deficit to come under control and they wanted a little sanity and some validity.”In other words, she echoes the House GOP’s misguided belief that it won a big mandate in 2010. But even if we leave aside the obvious fact that the vast majority of voters stayed home last November (as always happens in midterm elections), and that the motivated midterm voters were older, whiter, and far more conservative than the electorate at large, and that therefore the midterm electorate should not be confused with “the American people,” we also have these noteworthy polling stats:In the mid-January Gallup survey, 61 percent of Americans opposed “cutting government spending” in Medicare, while only 38 percent supported it. Sixty four percent opposed cutting Social Security spending, while only 34 percent supported it. Meanwhile, a Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard poll got roughly the same figures on Social Security, with only 35 percent supporting spending cuts.Also last month, a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll found that while most Americans say they want smaller government and lower deficits, they nevertheless want Social Security and Medicare to be off the table. Seventy eight percent said they want the politicians to protect Social Security, and 81 percent said the same about Medicare.Are the tea-partying Republicans prepared to buck this sentiment – basically, the same kind of sentiment that has humbled its most ambitious leaders, going back nearly 50 years? When they do go after these entitlements, they’ll undoubtedly emphasize that current senior citizens are safe, and that any proposed reforms will only affect future beneficiaries – but how can they assume that voters who are currently 45 or 50 or 55 will somehow be willing to take the pain, and be willing to reward the party that metes out the pain?”I think it’s a smart move for this country,” said Molinari, “and I think the voters will understand it.” Yeah, we’ll see about that. As a tea partier famously yelled back in 2009, “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!”

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