Surprise: Romney Is Betraying the Tea Party

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The presumptive GOP nominee is now fighting against cuts to a Great Society entitlement -- and loyal conservatives in the media are cheering him on.



Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, journalist most likely to echo their talking points Jennifer Rubin, talk radio's Rush Limbaugh, conservative movement favorite Charles Krauthammer, and usually sensible right-leaning policy wonks Yuval Levin and Avik Roy are all doing something extraordinary, given their avowed beliefs: They're attacking a Democratic president for a spending cut, or else defending Republican challengers who want to reinstate hundreds of millions in spending.

The spending isn't part of the defense budget.

They're attacking President Obama for cuts to an entitlement program passed as party of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. And they're insisting that the funds be restored to the program.

Why would right-leaning folks do that?

Cuts to Medicare are unpopular with voters -- and Republicans care more about winning elections than cutting entitlements, something last demonstrated when they passed Medicare Part D during the Bush era, a budget-busting vote that supposed fiscal conservative Paul Ryan joined.

Attention, Tea Partiers: What we're seeing right now is another instance of political calculation trumping spending discipline. Republicans tell themselves that they need to win now to better advance their agenda later, a process that just repeats itself with each election cycle, the deficit reduction never actually coming. The tactics that Romney and Ryan are employing make the chances of GOP led entitlement reform grow dimmer by the day. Yes, President Obama was going to attack Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan for wanting to cut Medicare. And this preemptive attack by Team Romney may prove effective. But ponder its consequences for a moment.

Medicare cuts are central to Ryan's plan to get America back on sound fiscal footing, and health-care reform that addresses Medicare costs is widely regarded as necessary to any serious deficit-reduction plan, given the rapid pace at which the program's costs are increasing. Says Avik Roy, after observing Team Romney's latest attacks, "The dream scenario is possible: that the 2012 election gives Medicare reformers a mandate to put the program on permanently stable footing. One might even call it the audacity of hope." 

That is almost exactly wrong. What voters are hearing from Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan is that Barack Obama cut their Medicare, and the Republicans will reinstate it. That message does not produce a mandate to reform Medicare. It produces a mandate to preserve the status quo, and to oppose future cuts. Thanks to Romney and Ryan, it's likely down-ticket Republicans will be using the same talking points.

Thus Medicare cuts will be an even less likely GOP accomplishment.

A lot of right-leaning pundits are getting deep in the weeds about the attacks and counterattacks flying back and forth. Team Romney is right about X! Team Obama is wrong about Y!

They're ignoring the incoherent elephant in the room. As Josh Barro puts it:
What Romney and Ryan are up to is simple: They want to have it both ways on Medicare. They are for Medicare cuts, because Medicare is expensive and the federal budget needs to be controlled. And they are against Medicare cuts, because Medicare cuts are unpopular.

The political impulses behind this strategy are clear. Why any policy experts would try to offer a substantive defense of it is not.
Scott Galupo at The American Conservative makes a related point: that there's no coherent reason to think that the relatively small cuts implemented by President Obama are an affront to seniors and their care, while the relatively deeper cuts that would be implemented ten years hence under the Romney-Ryan plan would be unobjectionable. "Never asked, let alone answered ... if Romney's Medicare reforms are so painless, why not demand that current beneficiaries accept them?" he writes. "Why is it necessary to spare them from structural reforms that are so self-evidently 'sensible'?"

Take a look at Ryan's response:

"We're going to have this debate, and we're going to win this debate," Ryan said. "It's the president who took $716 billion ... from the Medicare program to spend on Obamacare. That's cuts to current seniors that will lead to less services for current seniors. We don't do that. We actually say end the raid and restore that, so that those seniors get the benefits today that they organize their lives around."

Whether or not you buy his fairness argument, the political truth is that it gets harder to pass Medicare cuts every year, because the necessity of cuts is partly a function of the fact that America is aging, and the demographic of Medicare recipients is just going to keep on increasing. Even the presumption that you can pass a law now calling for cuts beginning 10 years in the future, and that successive Congresses will sustain the arrangement, is dubious. It's just typical politician "pain for others later, not for us now" responsibility evasion. All the more reason why, from a deficit hawk's perspective, it's insanity to reinstate an entitlement cut Obama already made.

They should celebrate it.

That's the one part of Obamacare that Republicans should want to keep if they have the courage of their convictions. But the point is actually that they never have and don't now have the courage of their deficit convictions, and are very unlikely to ever pass anything like the Ryan plan the Tea Party fell in love with. Reihan Salam sensibly suggests that it would be better to get Medicare savings sooner than a decade from now. It's telling that the conservative movement and the GOP are presently campaigning against that proposition. Why anyone trust them to cut the deficit at this point is beyond me, given the fact that they find a way to fail every time.

But promising to repeal cuts that were already passed is taking it a step farther.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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