With the national debt skyrocketing, a faction on the right is hoping to turn the 2012 election into a debate on entitlement reform. No doubt, many Democrats are hoping the very same thing. Democrats would view that development as a chance to gain politically, while some Republicans would see it as a chance to demonstrate their purity.
Charging forth under the motto of William F. Buckley, standing "athwart history, yelling Stop," many conservatives have an affection for martyrdom. And it is not a uniquely conservative mistake to believe that, if something is hard, it is also worthwhile.
Running on entitlement reform would be very hard. Social Security, the centerpiece of American social insurance, is far more popular than tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans or other beloved positions of supposed fiscal hawks. Though many Americans recognize that Medicare is on an unsustainable course, they also want to ensure that the elderly can have sufficient medical care. And bromides about "self-reliance" apart from "socialistic" government intervention can be grating when they come from millionaires who have collected many years' worth of government paychecks. Moreover, it's hard to run a presidential campaign, a genre of the broad brush, with the mechanical pencil of policy minutia.
Yet the difficulty of running on entitlements should not obscure the fact that running on entitlements and focusing excessive energy on curbing entitlements will not solve what truly ails the economic health of the nation and drives our immediate and medium-term deficits: the poor employment picture. Hundreds of billions would be shaved off of the federal deficit with a revitalized economy, and a rotten economy is accelerating our entitlements crisis.
If you want to destroy the sustainability of Social Security and other social insurance programs, ignoring the economy is a good first step. Of course, economic stagnation also imperils the ability of the United States to project power, diminishes the standard of living, and makes it harder for Americans (and others across the globe) to have a lifestyle of comfort. Economic despair would have profound ripples throughout the American social fabric and the global order. Conversely, if the US can transcend the economic doldrums of the past decade, Social Security would require relatively little reform to become indefinitely sustainable, and even Medicare reform would become much more manageable. Solving the economy will help solve entitlement issues, but curbing the growth of Medicare, etc. will not, alas, solve our economic problems: very few businesses are refusing to hire because they fear the escalating costs of Medicare two decades down the road.
Furthermore, running on the poor economy has the additional advantage that this economy is immediately tangible. There's no need for Republicans to get caught in the weeds of arguments about projections, revenue metrics, and benchmarks for growth when they can instead simply tell voters to check the unemployment rate, to look at their diminishing paychecks, or to see how their neighbors are doing.
Republicans would have much to gain by making the economy the door to a broader critique of the Obama administration: that this economic frustration is representative of a broader failure to channel the energies of a free people; that, rather than focusing on the practical trials of American workers, this administration chose instead to use this crisis to indulge in ideology; that its rapid expansion of regulatory power has served not to level the playing field but instead to provide a vehicle for favoritism and political payback. Many of the excesses and limitations of the Obama administration can be seen in its economic policies, so Republicans can make a broader, principled case against Obama while also being anchored in the economic realities of the moment.
Republicans can say to voters, In 2008, you voted in Barack Obama and scores of Democrats in hopes of a new way forward. Disappointment has been the recompense for all your hopes. We can offer a better path. Growth built not on debt but on innovation and production. An economy based not on hollowing out and corporate raiding, where the profits go to an ever-shrinking minority, but on the productive labor of the broad range of the American workforce, where a true rising tide will lift all boats. We can offer an economy of freedom, where opportunity is not the purview of the few but the promise of the many. The world has changed over the past decade, but the thinking of many in Washington has not kept pace with that change. Well, now is the time to renew the American spirit of freedom, innovation, and prosperity---not for some Americans but for all Americans.
Such an aspirational, forward-looking message has, I think, more in it electorally and intellectually than do hectoring declarations that the Democrat party (or the RINO establishment or the federal government as a whole) is a hive of traitorous socialists who hate the United States and freedom. It also has a lot more zip than endlessly insisting, No, I really don't want to push Granny off a cliff. In fact, based on current actuarial projections, at the rate of current spending, the Social Security trust fund will be depleted by such-and-such a date, unless we start to adjust COLA standards and....
(Crossposted at FrumForum)