Opinion writer

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Mitch McConnell may be one of the most cynical politicians in the history of this great land, but at times he can be remarkably candid, as he was in a recent interview with Bloomberg News. Asked about the fact that the deficit is now projected to be $779 billion this year and $1 trillion by 2020, McConnell said, “It’s disappointing, but it’s not a Republican problem.” The real cause of debt is Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, he argued, saying that imposing cuts to those programs “may well be difficult if not impossible to achieve when you have unified government.”

This was an unusual and extremely revealing comment — ordinarily, politicians say that if they are given unified control of government, then they’ll be able to do all the important things, not that the important things can only happen once they lose. But it’s being widely misinterpreted, mostly by Democrats.

In fact, McConnell is up to something even worse than what Democrats are saying. But they want to use his comments as a tool in this year’s elections:

Democrats issued warnings Wednesday about the peril Republicans pose to Medicare and Social Security, accusing the GOP of plotting to cut critical safety net programs to close a budget deficit of their own making.

“A vote for Republican candidates in this election is a vote to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid,” argued Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).

Van Hollen and other Democrats pounced on comments from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in which the top Senate Republican blamed social programs for the growing deficit and said he hoped Congress would tackle spending on them “at some point here.”

Just to be clear, I’m not saying that McConnell and Republicans wouldn’t like to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. They would. If they had their fondest wish, they’d privatize all three programs, as at various times in the past they have attempted to do. But it isn’t quite accurate to say that if Republicans retain control of Congress they’ll be imposing sweeping entitlement cuts.

In fact, McConnell said just the opposite, acknowledging that entitlement cuts are too politically perilous for Republicans to undertake on their own without bipartisan cover. He wasn’t being completely honest when it comes to Medicaid, since Republicans already tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which would have tossed millions of people off the program, and McConnell still says that if they have the votes to repeal the ACA next year, they’ll do it. But his game is much less straightforward and more diabolical.

What McConnell was actually doing in that interview was laying down a marker for the next two years, and the four or eight that come after that.

First, by claiming (falsely) that the GOP tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy have nothing to do with the deficit but it’s all because of entitlements, McConnell was saying “Don’t blame us.” Democrats will continue to argue that Republicans are hypocrites for ballooning the deficit, but McConnell is giving the members of his party the argument they can use in response, that despite the fact that they control the entire government, it has nothing to do with them. It’s all because of the entitlement programs that are on auto-pilot, and they can’t do anything about it now. Not their problem.

That’s what they’ll say for the next two years. But it’s what comes after that’s truly repugnant. McConnell is making clear that once there’s a Democrat in the White House and “unified government” (at least of the GOP) is over, he and his Republican colleagues will go right back to saying the deficit is an urgent crisis, demanding steep cuts to domestic spending in order to address it.

The truth is that the deficit is not really a problem at all, or at least not much of one. But Republicans know well that it’s an effective tool of intimidation and manipulation, given the eternal desire among Democrats to be seen as fiscally responsible stewards of government.

That was in many ways the entire story of the budget during the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency: Democrats trying to be reasonable and responsible while Republicans gleefully pushed them around, in ways that hampered Obama’s ability to solve problems and improve the well-being of the American public. Republicans knew that the more successful Obama was at things such as bringing the country out of the Great Recession, the more he’d benefit politically and the worse it would be for them. So they did everything they could to sabotage him.

And it started right at the beginning. Even before Obama took office, Republicans decided on a strategy of complete opposition, not only to prevent him from making policy to which they had an ideological objection but also to keep him from succeeding in any way. As Michael Grunwald reported in his book “The New New Deal,” Vice President Joe Biden had conversations with Republican senators in which they explained why they couldn’t work with him. “The way it was characterized to me was: ‘For the next two years, we can’t let you succeed in anything. That’s our ticket to coming back,’ ” Biden said.

Even in the depths of a horrific recession, once Obama took office Republicans immediately began crying that economic stimulus would be disastrous if it added too much to the deficit, despite the fact that every sane economist believes that that’s exactly the moment when the government should be willing to take on more debt in order to get the economy moving again. That was in fact a principle Republicans embraced when the president was a Republican; as late as February 2008, nearly all Republicans in Congress approved a $152 billion stimulus, sending checks to millions of Americans to help the economy, with no worries about the deficit. “This is the Senate at its finest, recognizing this was an opportunity to demonstrate to the public that we could come together, do something important for the country and do it quickly,” said a guy named Mitch McConnell.

But when Obama took office, Republicans did an immediate 180-degree turn, claiming that if we didn’t rein in the deficit then we’d quickly turn into Greece, our entire economy and society thrown into chaos by our debt. It has been forgotten now, but “We’re going to be Greece soon” was an absolutely ubiquitous talking point on the right at the time.

Republicans then forced a series of budget battles, which included a government shutdown and threats to default on the debt, that restrained spending and prevented the kind of ongoing stimulus that would have made the Great Recession less painful. They knew exactly what they were up to: While slashing popular spending programs is always one of their goals, it’s particularly useful to do so when it undercuts the popularity of a Democratic president.

And what McConnell is saying now is this: We’re going to do it all over again the next time there’s a Democrat in the White House.

So when Democrats say that McConnell is admitting that Republicans want to take an ax to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, they’re only partially right. Does he want to do that? Sure. But he knows how difficult it would be, so he has a more immediate plan: Let the money flow as long as there’s a Republican president, but clamp down as soon as a Democrat is elected. It worked so well in the past, why wouldn’t it work again in the future?