Republicans Box Themselves In

A Tea Party rally in Cleveland on April 15, 2010. John Kuntz / The Plain Dealer-Landov

As the spouse of the vice president of our local middle school’s PTA, I know President Kennedy was right when he said, “To govern is to choose.” My neighbors—prosperous, patriotic, family oriented—would likely nod readily in response to a generic call to cut government spending. But God help anyone who tried to lay off any of our teachers. Sure, my seventh grader could survive in a class of 45 instead of 28; no one ever died from head lice. But here’s the deal: there is no head-lice caucus at the middle-school PTA.

And therein lies the conundrum for Republicans. They are working—earnestly, passionately, some say fanatically—to cut spending at a moment when voters say they oppose nearly all specific spending cuts and care far more intensely about jobs.

In the GOP’s historic 2010 landslide of distant memory, reducing the budget deficit was the top economic priority of their voters by a 20-point margin. Just eight months later, most Americans are in a very different place. A Fox News poll (unlikely to skew left), found voters preferring their leaders to focus on jobs and the economy over the deficit and government spending by more than 2 to 1—a 28-point margin.

Call it the courage of their convictions or drinking their own Kool-Aid, but Republicans seem hellbent on an agenda most folks just don’t want. The GOP budget plan, sponsored by Rep. Paul Ryan, would, in the words of The Wall Street Journal, “essentially end Medicare.” Not just cut Medicare but essentially end it for future beneficiaries. And why not? Medicare is socialized health insurance for seniors, and we Americans hate socialism, right? In theory, sure. But in practice, umm, well, it’s more complicated. An overwhelming 70 percent of self-described Tea Party supporters oppose cutting Medicare and Medicaid.

Come to think of it, when the Tea Partiers were rallying we saw plenty of photos of guys in tricorn hats and lots of images of patriots waving “Don’t Tread on Me” flags, but I can’t recall a single person burning his or her Medicare card. Those Tea Partiers were, I believe, honestly concerned with the deficit. But trusting Republican politicians to balance the budget is like putting an arsonist in charge of the fire department. Under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney (who famously quipped to then-Treasury secretary Paul O’Neill that “deficits don’t matter”), the Republicans took the largest surplus in American history and turned it into the largest deficit.

Ronald Reagan’s first-term budget director, David Stockman, admitted 30 years ago that supply-side economics was a Trojan horse for cutting the top tax rate for the rich. Well, the old empty horse is back. This time the GOP is using the deficit they created as justification to destroy the Medicare program they have always hated. Trouble is, while Republican politicians may hate Medicare, the American people love it.

And just what lurks inside the Trojan horse? More tax cuts for the rich. That’s right. The Republican budget plan doesn’t even reduce the deficit in the near term because it places a higher priority on cutting taxes, especially for the rich. Even after essentially ending Medicare, such cuts produce no deficit reduction—though they do reduce the top marginal income-tax rate on the rich to its lowest level in 80 years.

It’s a terrible box they’re in. As Newt Gingrich has recently proved, a GOP candidate cannot dare oppose the plan to essentially end Medicare if he or she hopes to garner the support of the revolutionary right that constitutes such a powerful force in Republican presidential primaries. But embracing that same plan could very well hand the 2012 election to Barack Obama and the Democrats. Nothing would please Team Obama more than to shift the focus away from America’s anemic job growth and onto a remake of Throw Momma From the Train. The Republicans might have more luck trying to sell head lice to my fellow middle-school parents.

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