Winner: The Most Infuriating Political Statement of the Year
For months, as Washington has lurched from one fiscal crisis to another, Republicans in Congress have demanded that President Obama "show leadership" on the budget. This was code for wanting the President to propose cuts to the big entitlement programs, like Social Security or Medicare.
There were two responses from the White House. First, they pointed out that the President has repeatedly said he'd be willing to accept those cuts as part of a larger deal to set the government on a sustainable path for the future. And, in fact, several times he made offers to House Speaker John Boehner to do just that in private negotiations over the various fiscal deadlines we faced over the last two years.
The President and his team also pointed out that it was Republicans who wanted the entitlement cuts, so they should propose them, just as he and Democrats had proposed what they wanted -- higher taxes on the wealthy and the closing of tax loopholes to raise revenue. That's the way negotiations go, they said, we ask for what we want, you ask for what you want, and we compromise. You don't demand that the other side in a debate propose his ideas and yours.
What is underneath all of this is a fear that whoever proposed slowing the growth of Social Security or Medicare would pay a political price. So Republicans, even though they wanted that outcome, didn't want to make a specific proposal on it. And Democrats remember what happened in 2009-10, when some Medicare money was shifted to the Affordable Care Act, and Republicans attacked them for "cutting Medicare" (and then Republicans included those cuts in their own budget proposal).
The bottom line was that Democrats had a fair point about the way negotiations are supposed to go, while Republicans had at least a reasonable case to make that being President is different -- you have to take bigger risks to achieve important things.
So this week -- after much debate among Democrats about whether offering entitlement cuts was too politically dangerous-- the President decided to take Republicans at their word. He took the political risk of proposing that increases in Social Security benefits be somewhat smaller, in an attempt to break the stalemate in Washington.
There were three responses from Republicans: One constructive, one familiar and frustrating, and one completely infuriating. The constructive one was from Senator Johnny Isakson, a conservative from Georgia, who gave the President cautious credit, saying Obama is “talking about Medicare reform, he’s talking about entitlement reform, and it will be interesting to see where the conversation goes.” The familiar and frustrating one was from Boehner and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who dismissed the proposal, even though they'd been pressuring Obama for years to do something like this.
But the infuriating one was from Rep. Greg Walden, who heads the campaign committee for House Republicans. In response to the President taking the risk that Republicans had been demanding of him on entitlements, Walden said: “I thought it was very intriguing in that [Obama’s] budget really lays out kind of a shocking attack on seniors...I think he’s going to have a lot of push-back from some of the major senior organizations on this and Republicans as well.”
So House Republicans want entitlement cuts to save the nation from the spiraling national debt -- which they view as the greatest crisis our country faces -- but they don't want to propose them, and when the President does they attack him for it.