Michael Gerson

Third, some House leaders want to begin laying the foundation for entitlement reform, since large, unfunded entitlement commitments are the main cause of the American fiscal crisis. But this approach splits the Republican conference, with some members asserting it is premature and politically damaging. Even supporters of raising the issue think in incremental terms. While America may have the Greek economic disease, the worst symptoms are not immediate. "We are not at the austerity stage yet," one House member told me. "We still have time to change on our own terms." The hope of entitlement-reform advocates is to spend two years preparing the public -- demonstrating that scaling back benefits is possible without removing the safety net, building alliances with centrist Democrats and ensuring that the 2012 Republican presidential candidate is supportive.

To some Americans, this agenda will seem ambitious. To others, it may seem frightening. But House leaders believe their main risk is appearing too timid to their own members. Even if this three-part strategy proceeds with efficiency and success, in two years it will result in a budget freeze, an unsuccessful guerrilla campaign against health reform, and the bare beginnings of the entitlement debate. Will tea party revolutionaries view this as victory? Will they be tempted by the Ross Perot option -- a third-party movement that would increase the odds of Obama's re-election?

One test of Republican strategy will come early. At some point from March to May, the federal government will require the authority to borrow more money. House Republican leaders will try to use a vote on increasing the debt limit to secure concessions from the Obama administration. But some newly elected Republicans may oppose increasing the limit under any circumstances. What tea party candidate was elected to add to the debt? The problem is, as one House Republican told me, "If we don't raise the limit, we are Argentina." So would John Boehner, the likely new speaker, be forced to go to House Democrats for support? How would that play among the Sam Adamses of the revolution, already suspicious of Boehner as an "establishment" figure?

There are always compromises in governing. But they are harder to make when one element of a political coalition views compromise itself as the problem.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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