That’s the advice of Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor for National Review Online. Writing in the New York Times, he recounts failed attempts by Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich and George W. Bush to reform entitlements and argues congressional Republicans need two things they don’t currently have before embarking on a new reform push: presidential leadership on the issue, and a clear mandate from the electorate to address Social Security and Medicare.
Here’s the gist:
Reforming these programs is vital to our nation’s long-term fiscal health — which is why Republicans should … leave the issue alone. Reform is impossible this year or next unless President Obama takes the lead on it. What’s more, Republicans have no mandate for reform, and a failed attempt will only set back the cause.
If Mr. Obama delivers a good-faith proposal for Social Security, for example in this month’s State of the Union address, then by all means Republicans should offer a serious counterproposal and, depending on their differences, negotiate. If he doesn’t, then Republicans should wait on a new president in 2013.
But they should do more than wait: in the event of presidential inaction, reformers should blame Mr. Obama for the lack of progress and work to make entitlements a litmus-test issue in the Republican presidential primaries. The goal should be to nominate someone willing to make a strong case for reducing entitlement growth as part of a larger strategy to restore American prosperity.
While Ponnuru acknowledges that we won’t truly get back on sound fiscal footing until we address entitlements, he does suggest that, absent a presidential push, Republicans should begin cutting elsewhere to prove they’re serious — and worthy of that mandate they’re missing on entitlements:
They should begin by freezing or cutting government payrolls, including in the legislative branch — something Republicans have already started doing. Message: the federal government is not just imposing sacrifices but sharing them. Then they should get control of the discretionary, or non-entitlement, portions of the budget, which are small only in comparison with entitlements. Only after winning those fights, and probably electing a new president, should the old-age entitlements be up for reform.
I’m torn. I agree that failure probably sets back reform efforts, a loss of time we can’t afford. At the same time, a lot of Americans understand we have no time to lose — will they be satisfied with ramping up to entitlement reform, while blaming the president?
On the one hand, presidential leadership is necessary on this issue, and the Republican majority in the House alone can’t force Obama to act. It would get more interesting if they could draft and pass solid legislation that could also clear the Senate, but that may be just as tricky as making Obama move if he’s unwilling to do so.
On the other hand, the GOP’s strategy on ObamaCare has been to pass a repeal bill in the House to prove to their supporters that they’re serious, even though they know they will need a new president and another electoral mandate to actually achieve repeal. What’s the difference between ObamaCare and entitlement reform? Sure, one difference is that millions of Americans are already on Social Security and Medicare. But as a means of proving one’s seriousness, it doesn’t get much more serious than taking the votes you’re able to take, when you’re able to take them. Unwinding the parts of these programs that we can’t afford is going to take more than one piece of legislation anyway.
Thoughts? Should Republicans chip away where they can, or just try to lay the groundwork for making this an issue in 2012?