Republicans Are Smart to Avoid Naming Specific Budget Cuts

Democrats are in a tough spot. They spent an incredible amount of money on a giant stimulus package days after they gained control of the White House and obtained healthy margins over Republicans in both houses of Congress. Yet with unemployment still a major problem nearly two years later, they have little to show for it, other than the unverifiable claim that things would have otherwise been much worse. Meanwhile, the deficit has widened significantly.

Naturally, Republicans have seized this opportunity to reinvent themselves as the party of fiscal responsibility. That angers Democrats -- especially since Republicans won't say what specific spending they want to cut. But their decision not to reveal any detail on specific cuts is a great political strategy.

Take, for example, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) who appeared on CNBC's Squawk Box Friday morning. Anchor Joe Kernen asked Corker for some specifics on what he would cut. Here's what he said (full clip below):

Corker: I think all spending needs to be on the table.

Kernen: Everything's on the table?

Everything. Everything.

Defense? Entitlements?

Look, Secretary Gates will tell you, there's a lot of waste there. We need to streamline it.

Other than waste though?

Yeah, I mean that's an area where it's gonna be more difficult, let's face it, because it's our national security. It's the most important thing we do in Washington. But look, every single thing we do needs to be looked at. So I would say nothing's off the table. Nothing. Obviously, Medicare is $37 trillion in the hole as far as unfunded liabilities. We can't continue on that path.

But without rationing what do you do with Medicare?

Well, I think we need to look at things, I'm sorry, like means testing and other kinds of things. I mean the program cannot continue as it is. And you have to look at how payments are made. I mean the fact is it's a fee-for-service program with almost unlimited intakes. So we've got to look at outcomes. There are a lot of things that we could have done during this health care debate that we didn't do.

And from there he delved into more general fiscal policy talking points. As you can see, there aren't really any detailed specifics there. He essentially said that he wants some surgical cuts in defense and to find tricks to make Medicare cheaper. Basically, Republicans want to cut everything, but precisely what they cut will be determined once the election is over. It's very convenient

In fact, this is a brilliant strategy. There are two pretty clearly true assertions you can make about Americans. Most of them want the government to spend less. Yet almost none of them want the programs cut that they believe are important. The Republican approach of demanding massive cuts but providing no specificity perfectly speaks to both of these attitudes. Americans will nod along as Republicans proclaim their desire to cut spending, but not frown as they would if a Republican suggested cutting a program dear to their hearts.

Moreover, after Republicans gain more control in Congress, they can propose cutting the budget to the bone, and it won't make any difference. Even if they have to votes to pass a few such bills, President Obama will almost certainly veto any deep cuts, particularly regarding entitlements. Then, Republicans can continue to blame the soaring deficit on Democrats and the President, while pointing to their record of attempted cuts that their opponents blocked.

Of course, that's also where things will get tricky. In 2012, if the President running for reelection or other Democrats complain about cuts Republicans proposed but were blocked, will voters grow angry about any of those specific cuts and side with Democrats? Perhaps, but if the deficit remains high, and it probably will, Americans might continue to be more annoyed that Democrats stood in the way of Republican cuts, even if some of them weren't ideal from a particular voters' perspective.

Republicans won't have to really prove that their cuts make sense until their proposals actually have a chance of becoming law. And that won't happen until they have control of both the Congress and White House. Even in their rosiest of imagined worlds, that won't be before at least 2013. If they do find themselves in such a favorable position, then they must make good on their fiscal promises.

But if history is any indication, then cuts aren't likely to be significant. Indeed, spending and deficits soared when Republicans controlled Congress and held the White House in the 2000s. It will be a few years before we can know if they've really changed.


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Daniel Indiviglio was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 through 2011. He is now the Washington, D.C.-based columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He is also a 2011 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow through the Phillips Foundation. More

Indiviglio has also written for Forbes. Prior to becoming a journalist, he spent several years working as an investment banker and a consultant.

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