Why are congressional Republicans at such a disadvantage in negotiations about the fiscal cliff and debt ceiling? Is it just a failure of messaging? Is it a simple lack of backbone, as Rush Limbaugh, Jim DeMint and others argue?
Well, it doesn’t help the GOP cause that President Obama’s job-approval rating has jumped to 57 percent in the latest AP poll, the highest since the death of Osama bin Laden. (And isn’t it refreshing that the entire “Obama ain’t a real American/president” meme has simply evaporated since the election?) In that same poll, just 32 percent of Americans say they support extending the Bush tax cuts for all Americans, a policy that represents one of the cornerstones of current Republican policy.
I realize that poll interpretation has been a bit of a problem for Republicans recently, but even they must know that a policy backed by just 32 percent of the country is a poor piece of ground on which to stake your party’s future.
However, things get really dicey when you realize that preserving tax cuts for the rich is actually the more popular part of the GOP’s current political platform. The other part of their crusade — cutting spending in entitlements, most notably Medicare and Social Security — draws even less support from the American people, as a National Journal poll released this week demonstrates:
Just 22 percent of Americans say they support cutting Social Security. Only 3 percent say they support cutting it by a lot. Just 20 percent support cutting Medicare either some or a lot. And defense spending? While Republicans insist that we devote even more of our resources to the Pentagon, 64 percent of the American people say it should be reduced by some or by a lot.
Now, I’m just an interested observer, not a political professional. But to meeeeeee, it seems risky for a party to push the nation over the fiscal cliff, or in the case of the debt ceiling to push the nation into default, in an effort to force adoption of policies that are opposed by four out of five Americans. That just doesn’t seem like a formula for long-term success.
Ken Baer and Jeff Liebman, writing in a New York Times op-ed today, make an interesting and related point regarding Medicare and Social Security. They note that over the past 40 years, federal spending has averaged about 21 percent of GDP. They also note CBO projections that “if current policies continue, total federal spending will rise to 24 percent of gross domestic product in 2022.”
Why that projected growth in spending?
While “Republicans and Washington deficit hawks argue that this means spending is out of control,” Baer and Liebman write, in reality “the main reason expenditures are rising this decade is that spending on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid is increasing by a whopping 3.7 percent of G.D.P. as the baby boomers age and retire.”
Every month, they point out, more than 200,000 baby boomers will be leaving the work force due to retirement (that’s also one reason the population-to-workforce ratio continues to drop). In the face of that very predictable retirement boom, insisting on dramatic cuts in Medicare and other programs simply is not realistic. Yes, we absolutely ought to seek every efficiency possible in those and other programs. But if slashing those programs just when they are most needed is your party’s main answer to our fiscal challenges, then you really have no answer at all.
Which is what the American people have been trying to tell the Republicans all along.
– Jay Bookman