Boehner Dares to Touch the Third Rail: Social Security

House speaker says Republicans are ready to trim popular entitlement programs

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House Speaker John Boehner says he's ready to do the politically impossible: take on Social Security and Medicare. Republicans--especially the Tea Party-backed freshmen--are eager to cut the budget deficit, and experts say it's impossible to really tackle the problem without trimming entitlements. But historically, most Americans don't like it when lawmakers to do that. Boehner says they just need to be better educated about the problem.

"People in Washington assume that Americans understand how big the problem is, but most Americans don't have a clue," Boehner told The Wall Street Journal's Naftali Bendavid and Janet Hook. "I think it's incumbent on us, if we are serious about dealing with the big challenges, that we go out and help Americans understand how big the problem is that faces us. ... Once they understand how big the problem is, I think people will be more receptive to what the possible solutions may be."

Why, ABC News' Michael Falcone and Amy Walter ask, does Boehner think this is a winning issue when it's taken for granted that cutting entitlements is "a sure loser?" Here's why, they say: though the vast majority of Americans don't want to cut Social Security bebefits to reduce the debt, about 60 percent would support cutting benefits to wealthier retirees.

Boehner said he offered to "lock arms" with President Obama, suggesting bipartisan cover for entitlement reform. But other Republicans would prefer Obama take on more of the risk, Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt saying Obama's the one with the "biggest microphone" to reach the public. In other words: you first, Dems.

Left-leaning political commentators disagree on who's got the upper hand here. Jonathan Chait thinks the Democrats are on top for now. But Slate's Dave Weigel counters that while "some Democrats I know are convinced the White House is luring Republicans into a tar pit, getting them to propose the sort of Social Security/Medicare cuts that bounced back on them in 1982 and 1996," this theory "assumes the White House gets to control the debate. That hasn't been the theme of the budget fight so far." Meanwhile, Mother Jones's Suzy Khimm suspects the GOP is actually after Medicaid, "as the program predominantly serves poor, minority voters, as opposed to senior citizens, a key demographic for Republicans." Social Security, on the other hand, will be safe.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.