ARE YOU furious that the politicians can’t balance the budget? If so, you may be looking in the wrong direction. It’s the voters who send contradictory messages on the budget. The politicians just follow along.
The victory on Tuesday of Democrat Kathy Hochul in a conservative upstate New York congressional district proved that the Republican plan to trim Medicare for deficit reduction is politically toxic. Hochul hammered her opponent for backing the House GOP’s plan to make major changes in Medicare to rein in federal outlays.
The election confirms a long-term trend: When presented with candidates who feign outrage over deficits but offer only false, piddling solutions such as cutting Planned Parenthood or NPR, voters are enthusiastically on board. When presented with candidates of either party who propose either tax increases or changes to entitlements — both of which will be necessary to balance the budget — voters run in the other direction. As long as the public refuses to acknowledge the need for real sacrifice, elected officials will, too.
Inevitably, Hochul’s victory prompted lots of crowing from Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats. It’s now entirely realistic to think that the Democrats can achieve major victories in 2012 by running strongly against the budget drafted by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and approved by the GOP-dominated House. After accidentally scaring seniors by tinkering with Medicare reimbursements in their own health care overhaul last year, House Democrats are now back in the familiar position of defending Granny — to a fault.
The Democrats are right in saying that Ryan’s budget would trim the federal deficit on the backs of seniors. Very plainly, it shifts the responsibility for higher medical costs from the government to Medicare recipients — while making more room for tax cuts. But while Ryan’s value judgments are objectionable, his budget attempts to address the tradeoffs necessary to achieve the taxpayers’ goal of deficit reduction. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting ($531 million per year) and Planned Parenthood ($300 million per year) don’t make a dent. Medicare and Medicaid ($793 billion) plainly do.
Yet if President Obama and other Democrats try to wring the maximum political benefit out of public distaste for Ryan’s budget, they’ll only make a budget deal more elusive. They need to join with Republicans in enacting a long-term solution combining modest benefit adjustments to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security with targeted tax increases. It’s the only palatable solution. It’s also a reasonable interpretation of the voters’ mixed signals.
Even voters who are deeply concerned about deficit spending rely heavily on Social Security and Medicare. A plan that preserves both programs with limited changes to benefit levels, while also making a substantial cut in the long-term deficit, is in the public’s best interest. It’s what voters want, even if they don’t know how to say so.