The GOP’s problem: The cuts they want aren’t the cuts they can get

December 13, 2012

This is a very sharp point by Josh Barro:

The Republicans' main problem in this negotiation is that they know President Barack Obama will not agree to cut in the area they want to cut: aid to the poor. The signal Obama has sent is that he is willing to make a deal that cuts old-age entitlements, meaning Medicare and Social Security, and Republicans are internally conflicted over those programs.


NBC/Meet the Press

He's right. Think back to Mitt Romney's proposed budget. Medicare and Social Security were held harmless for at least 10 years. Defense spending got a lift. PBS and the National Endowment for the Arts were on the table, but they cost so little it hardly mattered.

The only big cuts Romney ever proposed were to programs that aid the poor. He wanted to block grant -- which is to say, sharply cut -- Medicaid, food stamps, and housing assistance. He wanted to get rid of the tax cuts enacted in the stimulus to help the poor -- that's why his tax plan actually raised taxes on the poorest Americans. He wanted to repeal all the spending in Obamacare, most of which goes to lower-income Americans.

Those cuts still wouldn't have been enough to make Romney's budget add up. But they nevertheless would've been big cuts. And they were the only ones Romney proposed for the next decade. Nor was Romney a major outlier on this: About two-thirds of the cuts in Rep. Paul Ryan's budget came from programs for the poor.

These are, however, classes of cuts the White House won't even consider. A year ago, they were open to modest cuts in Medicaid, but after the Supreme Court's health-care decision, even that door has shut. As for discretionary spending cuts, so many of those were made in 2011, there's just not much left to do. 

That leaves Medicare and Social Security. It's possible that the negotiators will enact a backdoor, but significant, cut to Social Security by changing the government's measure of inflation. But they're not going to come at Social Security from the front. It's too politically potent. Even Ryan's budget left Social Security alone.

As for Medicare, as Barro says, if "Republicans ask for near-term Medicare cuts, that will mean reversing a position that is popular with a core constituency (old white people) and giving up a cudgel that they feel they have used effectively to beat up the president since 2009." It's a pickle.

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williamsm | December 13, 2012