Saturday, February 19, 2011

Act on a mandate, or squander an opportunity?

We keep hearing about this "adult conversation" that our politicians are going to have with us, which is code for cutting entitlements. Entitlements of course represent by far the largest chunk of federal spending, and it is growth in those entitlements, especially medicare, that is the cause of the massive budget shortfall predicted in a few decades. I am fully supportive of having this conversation about entitlement cuts, but all we have right now is a budgetary impasse. Republicans have thus far only had the political courage to target non-defense non-entitlement discretionary spending for their cuts, but Obama doesn't agree that we should gut the EPA, ax R&D, and shut down all of the national parks in order to put a band-aid on our hemorrhaging debt problem.

President Obama just released his own budget proposal, and Republicans have been lambasting him for a lack of leadership basically because he didn't propose cutting entitlements. I'm not really sure why Republicans are waiting for Obama to make the first move in proposing those cuts. Didn't Americans elect the GOP because they don't trust Obama on spending? And if Obama is as left wing as some purport him to be, why would he ever go along with, let alone propose, entitlement cuts? At any rate it's pretty obvious that Obama will agree to cuts in entitlements. What the Republicans really want, and the reason for the current impasse, is for Obama to help them avoid the political consequences of proposing and enacting entitlement cuts.

While Republicans are dithering about when or if to make the first move on this huge issue, they might do well to look at recent history. Obama poured virtually all of his political capital into his health care reform bill and he did it when he was fresh in office and most popular. If he had waited it never would have happened. The consequence of passing such a huge bill was he suffered politically in the next election. Republicans are now in a similar position. They were swept into office with a mandate to cut entitlements. If they want to make those cuts, they could do it now. Obama would not stop them. But he isn't going to make it *easier* for them. To expect otherwise is to live in a fantasy land. Republicans didn't make it easier for Obama and the Democrats to enact the long-time dream of universal health coverage, they did the opposite. Thats just politics 101.

As I've said before, there is a difference between electoral victory and legislative victory. The former means nothing without the latter. There will be huge resistance to any entitlement reforms - we are seeing a glimpse of it in Madison Wisconsin. The longer the GOP waits to move, the more time the opposition has to sap their momentum and break their will. Republicans may be squandering their only chance for years to do entitlement reform. The GOP needs to stop waiting around for Obama to give them political cover (he won't) and stop diddling around with the small peas of discretionary spending. The real victory is in medicare and social security, if Republicans have the courage to take it.

Naturally, I'm not optimistic about the Republican Party. I think they'll skirt around the real issues and instead focus on PR stunts like shutting down the federal government while whining that Obama won't let them do anything.

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