Reform of major institutions almost always creates more visible losers than winners in the short run. An example is ObamaCare. The president and the Democrats in Congress foolishly pushed the measure through without a single Republican vote. The upshot: Democrats got crushed in the 2010 elections. The Republicans not only took the House of Representatives, they won huge down ballot races all over the country.
The Democrats did walk away with a consolation prize, however. They got the health reform they wanted. Republicans are poised to make a similar mistake. But, unlike their opponents, they will walk away completely empty handed.
Yes we do have a problem of continuing and unsustainable federal deficit spending. But the Republicans in Congress cannot force the Democrats to reform Social Security. They cannot force the Democrats to reform Medicare. Or Medicaid. Or the disabilities program. Or any other major social insurance program.
If they try, President Obama will claim he is trying to protect seniors against Republican attempts to destroy the institutions they depend upon. Republicans will be accused of trying to raise the age of eligibility for Social Security and Medicare, of tinkering with the payment formulas to lower benefits and of “privatization” — all highly unpopular reforms.
Democrats will also make another argument. They will accuse the Republicans of hurting the recovery by creating uncertainty. There is a lot of evidence that public policy uncertainty is a chief cause of our slow recovery. Further, the policies of the Obama administration are the main source of that uncertainty. But Democrats could turn the tables on that issue if Republicans engage in highly visible budget battles with the president.
So what should Republicans do?
First, remind voters at every turn that we have a long-term entitlement spending crisis and that the Obama administration has contributed to that crisis — primarily by creating an entitlement benefit for the nonelderly that is not paid for in any realistic way.
Second, signal a willingness to negotiate with the president and with Democrats in Congress to reform the entitlement programs that almost everyone agrees must be reformed.
Third, avoid the appearance of trying to force the White House to reform Social Security and Medicare against the president’s wishes.
Finally, avoid voting for budgets that have no chance of passage and that imply deep cuts in Social Security and Medicare.