It's a hoary Democratic formula for winning elections -- frighten seniors that Republicans are gunning for their Social Security or Medicare -- and has been deftly deployed by Bill Clinton, Dick Gephardt, Nancy Pelosi, and countless others over the years. In 2010, some Republicans couldn't resist stealing the tactic themselves -- warning voters that Obamacare would result in cuts to Medicare. It wasn't a false charge -- Obamacare does slice $500 billion from Medicare to pay for its new entitlement -- but it was unseemly coming from the party that claims to be for fiscal responsibility.
In the wake of the stunning 2010 election and the triumph of the tea party in so many races, optimists imagined that the results might signal a new era in American political life -- a new maturity about the choices we face and a willingness to cut programs that are hurtling, Kamikaze-like, toward bankruptcy if not reformed.
Recent polling suggests that caution on that score is in order. A March CBS News poll asked Americans how serious a problem they considered the budget deficit to be. Sixty-eight percent described it as "very serious" and only 5 percent said "not too serious." Yet in a Washington Post/ABC News poll, Americans were asked whether they would support cuts in Medicare in order to reduce the national debt. Twenty-one percent said yes, and 78 percent said no (65 percent "strongly"). A Pew Research poll found that 65 percent opposed "changes to Medicare and Social Security" in order to reduce the budget deficit. Fully 72 percent favored raising taxes on those who earn more than $250,000.
The Post/ABC poll also asked about the future of Medicare. Should it "remain as a program with defined benefits" or "be changed to a program where people receive a check or voucher to shop for private health insurance"? The entire Republican caucus in the House having just voted to transform Medicare along those lines, Republicans may be disheartened to see the response: 65 percent favored keeping Medicare as is. Only 34 percent approved of a voucher plan.
Other surveys have found that Americans have wildly inaccurate notions about federal spending. Asked how much of the budget is devoted to foreign aid, the average guess in a World Public Opinion Research poll was 27 percent. In fact, it's about 1 percent.
A Marist poll brings even more disturbing news. Among self-identified tea party supporters, 70 percent oppose cutting Medicare or Medicaid in order to "deal with the federal budget deficit." Ouch.
Now, it's true that these polls reflect only the state of play at this moment -- before anyone has had a chance to explain how a voucher plan for Medicare would work, for example, and without clarifications about block-granting Medicaid. Still, it suggests that Republicans who hope to reform Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security -- to save the programs -- will have a heavy lift.
So what is a fiscally responsible, intellectually honest Republican to do? Tell voters the truth about the fiscal train wreck ahead. Assemble those charts showing that interest on the debt will, in the space of a decade, exceed defense spending. Clarify that reforming Medicare is not a choice but a necessity. The average House Republican is not as conversant with budget and tax issues as Rep. Paul Ryan. They need to study up because, as President Obama demonstrated in his George Washington University speech, the Democrats are not partners in seeking to curb debt and avoid a credit crisis. They are in full "Mediscare" mode.
The battle lines for 2012 are now clear: The very difficult task of confronting our debt, which should be a bipartisan project, falls to just one party. Republicans will have a better shot at success if they remember that reducing future spending, while essential, will never be popular. The message of avoiding fiscal catastrophe must be paired with promoting economic growth in the private sector. Cutting government and promoting jobs and growth are two sides of the same coin.
But Republicans cannot be under any illusions. Recent polling suggests that "granny in the snow" may still elect Democrats.