The Corner

Examining Entitlements

Over at the Examiner, they’re debating the relationship between entitlements and deficits. Byron York kicked things off with a column arguing that growing entitlements are not the main reason the deficit has grown over the last few years. Entitlements are a long-term threat, but it has been the recession and the Obama administration’s response to it — heavy on increased discretionary spending — that has caused the deficit’s recent growth. He concludes, “Should Republicans base their platform on entitlement reform, or should they focus on the here and now — specifically, on undoing the damage done by Obama and his Democratic allies? In coming months, the answer will likely become clear: entitlements someday, but first things first.”

Conn Carroll* and Phil Klein responded, and York responded to Carroll.

I think York wins the argument on the narrow question: The growth of entitlements has not driven the growth of the deficit. But I think he overstates the conclusions that can be drawn from that fact. It doesn’t get us very far in figuring out how much our deficit-fighting efforts should concentrate on reforming entitlements and how much on cutting discretionary spending. And while York is right to say that saying that discretionary spending is to blame for the deficit’s growth makes it easier for Republicans to blame Obama for it, Republican strategists have to keep something else in mind as well: There is no way to move the budget toward sustainable balance (or even near-balance) without taking on entitlements. Republicans may well want to run in 2012 promising to achieve that goal, and it seems like the right thing to do.

*As an aside, Carroll’s concluding lines strike me as absurd. He writes, “A political case can be made that Republicans should just pretend we don’t have an entitlement problem. Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty certainly believed that. How did that work out for him?” York is right to say that making the case for entitlement reform more vigorously would not have kept Pawlenty in the race any longer — and as far as I know, Carroll is the first person to broach that idea. But in fact Pawlenty did talk about our entitlement problem. Fans of the Ryan plan are entitled to object to his failure to embrace it in full: He wanted a plan that treated Medicare differently and took on Social Security, as the Ryan budget does not. (I raised some objections to Pawlenty’s entitlement ideas.) But Pawlenty did not “certainly” believe Republicans “should just pretend we don’t have an entitlement problem”; he didn’t believe that at all.

Ramesh Ponnuru — Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg View, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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