MY REPUBLICAN friends and conservative correspondents are ecstatic. With the economy stuck in a swamp, they’ve convinced themselves that Barack Obama is sinking in political quicksand.
He’s a failed president, they proclaim. Another Jimmy Carter, even.
If conservatives are gleeful, some of my Democratic friends are dismayed. They don’t blame Obama for the current mess, but with things as bad as they are and likely will be, how can any incumbent win next November, they wonder?
Certainly there’s a point beyond which voters simply throw up their hands. If the economy falls back into recession, we may just reach that range. And yet, as I gaze into the crystal ball, I see an incumbent better positioned than either the Republican optimists or the Democratic pessimists imagine.
Why? Well, start with the Republican field. Of the principal candidates, only three would have a plausible chance of beating Obama: Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, and Rick Perry. And given Perry’s dance on the ragged edge of debate disaster, that’s being charitable to him.
The other candidates are either too old, too inexperienced, too lacking in reasonableness of outlook, manner, or temperament or too much a combination of the aforementioned shortcomings to be elected president.
And when you cull the candidates to those who have a strong chance of being nominated and a good chance of beating Obama, only Romney really qualifies. That’s a mixed blessing for the GOP. On the one hand, Romney is competent and able; on the other, he lacks the aura of authenticity that comes from being comfortable in your skin and firm in your beliefs.
But even if Romney were as authentic as Reagan, he’d still be on the wrong side of one issue that’s dormant now but should prove potent next year: the level of cuts he’d countenance in Medicare, Medicaid, and other domestic programs, including, possibly, Social Security.
Why? Because Romney, like all his Republican rivals and the GOP’s congressional wing, is resolutely opposed to raising any new revenues, even if the added burden falls only on upper earners. And forgoing any new revenues will require considerably deeper cuts in Medicare and Medicaid, as well as almost all other domestic programs.
We saw that mathematical reality in House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s budget framework, which would have transferred thousands of dollars in annual health costs onto future Medicare recipients, transformed Medicaid into a block grant program, and dramatically reduced other domestic programs.
Ryan portrayed his plan as an inevitable budgetary reality. He was right to this degree: Cuts of that magnitude are unavoidable if Washington refuses to raise any new revenues. That’s true regardless of whether a candidate supports every jot and tittle of the Ryan approach.
“If you want to get on a sustainable fiscal track and leave revenue off the table, you have to do something that looks very much like the Ryan budget,’’ notes Robert Bixby, president of the Concord Coalition, a centrist budget watchdog.
Ryan’s plan has now been rendered a political orphan, and for good reason: It’s unpopular. As poll after poll demonstrates, Americans prefer a balanced solution — that is, budget cuts plus new revenues — to the deeper entitlements cuts that a no-new-taxes course necessitates.
So will voters come to recognize what the GOP approach spells?
They should. Even in the context of a campaign, it’s not hard to explain. Further, the GOP approach is easily and fairly framed as protecting the Bush-era tax rates for upper earners at the cost of deeper cuts in Medicare, possibly Social Security, and other domestic programs.
And if voters do make the connection? Well, Americans want some basic level of social insurance, and in a troubled economy, they are likely to value Medicare and Social Security more, not less.
We don’t hear much about that matter in the Republican race, because the candidates are united in their opposition to any new taxes. But we will once the general election campaign commences — and when we do, it has the potential to reshape the campaign narrative.