Politicians can lead only as far and as fast as public opinion allows. House Republicans, emboldened by their success in the 2010 elections, made the same miscalculation that other politicians in both parties have made, which is to assume a mandate when one doesn’t exist.
The 2010 elections were about many things: high unemployment and economic unrest; government spending and the role of government; debt and deficits; President Obama’s health-care plan; the president’s leadership generally.
Whatever the meaning of the 2010 midterms, Republicans would be stretching to say they had turned their pre-election campaign into a debate over House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s (Wis.) plan to transform Medicare. Having failed to do that last fall, they are paying the price now.
Former president George W. Bush made a similar mistake after the 2004 election when he launched his proposal to partially privatize Social Security. He sprang the plan on Congress and the country in early 2005 without having fully aired his intentions during his reelection campaign. His proposal died in the face of solid Democratic opposition and tepid Republican support, particularly in the Senate.
Obama found himself on the wrong side of public opinion with the policies he put in place after his election in 2008. The public wasn’t ready for the amount of spending he pushed through to deal with the recession. Nor was the public enamored with the shape of his health-care plan. The president’s agenda sparked a strong reaction, particularly from the right.
Republican victories last November have changed the terms of debate in Washington. Obama and the Democrats have given ground on spending cuts, far more so than they were willing to do in the past. But while those elections produced a greater sense of urgency to deal with the long-term fiscal problems, little consensus emerged over how to get there.
Ryan earned plaudits for putting a bold proposal on the table to deal with what is genuinely a national problem. But without significant debate and discussion, House Republicans pressed ahead and voted to embrace it, including the Medicare reforms, as it was delivered from the Budget Committee chairman.
Many Republicans not in the House have sought to keep some distance between themselves and the Ryan Medicare plan — offering general support and praise for Ryan’s approach without backing the details. GOP presidential candidates in particular have been wary about tying their futures to Ryan’s particulars and, in coming months, will spell out their own ideas for reforming entitlements.