Don’t get too caught up in the self-congratulation and spin following the Ames Straw Poll. The candidates are all hoping Americans didn’t notice that they didn’t touch the one issue most important to fixing our economy over the long run: entitlement reform. And that’s because the topic is awkward for them.
Republicans attempted Social Security reform, and then abandoned it just as quickly, following Pres. George W. Bush’s reelection. And worse, Republicans dramatically expanded Medicare with a new prescription-drug entitlement, Part D, a move that helped secure the intellectual foundations for Obamacare. Awkward.
Obama’s hand in the economy — spending $1.5 trillion in just three years and losing America’s AAA rating — has been no success either, and he almost admits it by pointing fingers rather than simply defending his policies on principle. But if Republicans expect to maintain credibility in their critique of Obama, the GOP’s presidential frontrunners have to become leaders in an area where the party has been noticeably absent (and indeed, part of the problem) for the last ten years.
Leadership has its price. Republicans have been keeping mum because when last the GOP pursued entitlement reform, it was a dud. Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R., Wis.) plan to reform entitlements produced such a backlash within his own party, it’s a wonder how it remains absent from the lips of the press (let alone the candidates) these days.
But that doesn’t mean the fight over entitlements within the GOP is over. Just look at the makeup of the newly formed bipartisan “supercommittee” charged with reaching a deal over the nation’s debt. Ryan turned heads when he said that he would not be serving, instead citing his work on the Budget Committee as too important to neglect. But Rep. David Camp (R., Mich.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, made Speaker Boehner’s cut, having led the initial uprising against Ryan’s plan. And he’ll be seated next to staunch Ryan-plan proponent Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R., Texas), who will be co-chairman of the panel.
It’s altogether likely — even necessary — that entitlements won’t get touched by Congress until the supercommittee reaches a deal. The House wouldn’t be able to get a bill passed in the Senate, let alone signed by the president, which is why the Ryan plan was such a disaster. But the issue will become a ticking time bomb during the holiday season, at which point it could become a nasty Christmas present for presidential contenders.
What’s more, not a single presidential contender has become a credible voice on the issue, either. While eyes turn to Romneycare as a conspicuous (and yes, awkward) example, it’s not like the other candidates in Iowa articulated an understanding of, let alone a plan for, entitlement reform. (Ron Paul has ideas, but they’re just ideas.)
These contenders don’t need to release a plan for fixing Social Security in order to be considered viable. But they do need to prepare for what happens in December. And to lead up to that, they could start demanding that the president provide his own plan.
After all, the CBO estimates that by 2035, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will make up 15 percent of GDP, with Medicare alone accounting for nearly 7 percent. It was hard enough to raise the debt ceiling the week before last — how is Obama going to address this growing burden without taking on new debt?
Further, Republicans can at least embrace the non-discretionary parts of the Ryan plan, which call for $1.8 trillion in spending cuts over the next ten years. Obama’s famed scalpel would look rather dinky in light of such swordsmanship.
Moderators of Thursday night’s debate may have been right to believe that Americans are concerned about Obama’s judgment on foreign policy. And the possibility of Iran’s becoming a nuclear power is a pressing issue. But last week’s roller-coaster ride in the stock market is too fresh in our memories to ignore the importance of the economy and the nation’s debt. The math is simple: The first Republican to get serious on entitlements will be the first Republican to get serious, period.
— J. P. Freire is a senior communications strategist at New Media Strategies.