The Agenda

Ron Brownstein on the Republican Dilemma

Ron Brownstein believes that Republicans face a dilemma, and he makes the case in his latest National Journal column.  Even if the GOP achieves unified control of Congress and the White House, achieving long-run fiscal consolidation will involve reforming programs on which Republican voters over the age of 65 depend:

Even with unified control, passing a deficit plan that relies solely on spending reductions (particularly in entitlements) while preserving tax cuts for the affluent could strain the Republican electoral coalition much more violently than most GOP leaders now assume. In fact, the GOP faces a co- nundrum: It may gain enough power next year to impose a just-cuts solution only by placating the voters most skeptical of that approach.

The reason is the changing nature of the Republican coalition. Over the past several decades, Republicans have run increasingly well in the overlapping circles of older and blue-collar whites. Those trends have dramatically accelerated under President Obama: In 2010, exit polls showed that GOP House candidates carried a crushing 63 percent both among white seniors and whites without a four-year college degree. Those groups are now at least as integral to Republican success as the cor- porate managers, small-business owners, and college-educated suburbanites who once an- chored their vote.

As Brownstein goes on to argue, blue-collar Republicans and college-educated Republicans tend to agree on broad priorities until you get to the specifics:

In November, another Congressional Connection Poll asked adults what pos- sible outcome from the super-committee process most concerned them. Nearly one- third of college-educated Republicans feared a deal that would authorize too much spend- ing; roughly a fourth were most worried that it wouldn’t sufficiently cut the deficit. Just one in five said their main concern was a deal cutting too much from Social Security and Medicare.

Among Republicans without a college degree, the results were almost inverted. Nearly one-third said they were most concerned that a deal would cut too much from Social Security and Medicare. Just one in five said they were most worried it would authorize too much spending. Only one in seven feared it would not slice the deficit enough.

And the numbers don’t look particularly promising going forward:

Although nearly three-fifths of college-educated Republicans said the deficit-reduction package should raise the Medicare retirement age, nearly three-fifths of noncollege Republicans said it should not. While 55 percent of college-educated Republicans support- ed a 10-year freeze on spending for domestic programs, a mirror-image 55 percent of non-college Republicans opposed the idea. In the September poll, the college-plus Republicans backed the House GOP idea to convert Medicare into a voucher-like system by a resounding 58 percent to 32 percent. Non-college Republicans divided almost in half, with 48 percent supporting the idea and 43 percent opposing.

There are a few problems with Brownstein’s analysis, however:

(1) He suggests that the GOP is aiming for “a deficit plan that relies solely on spending reductions (particularly in entitlements) while preserving tax cuts for the affluent.” As Keith Hennessey has explained, congressional Republicans have made a strategic shift on taxes. Opposition to any net tax increase was a way to secure leverage in negotiations over the long-run fiscal trajectory. But leading Republicans have demonstrated an openness to net tax increases, and in particular to an increase in the average tax rates paid by the most affluent households, provided it is part of a package that secures structural, architectural Medicare reform. 

(2) Brownstein’s polling data on converting Medicare into a voucher-like system is astounding not because of how negative the results are but rather because they’re so positive. The idea of vouchers has been used to terrify voters for years yet, yet more non-college Republicans favored the idea than opposed it. This was when the dominant proposal was a House Budget proposal that pledged to grow premium support at the rate of inflation, which tends to be far lower than the rate of medicare inflation. If Republicans shift to embracing a defined benefit version of premium support, in which Medicare beneficiaries would be guaranteed today’s level of coverage at the bare minimum, the idea would presumably be even more attractive, not least because it offers the possibility of cash refunds to those who choose the lowest-cost plans. 

(3) If Democrats pull the trigger and allow taxes to increase by $3.8 trillion by January 1, 2013, Republicans will have even more room to maneuver on the revenue side. 

None of this is to suggest that there is no dilemma facing Republicans. There are real tensions between working-class Republicans and more affluent Republicans — Ross Douthat and I wrote a book on how this split should shape conservative policymaking, and Ramesh Ponnuru and I have co-authored articles on how this split might shape the primaries. But there is a way out of this dilemma: to embrace win-win safety net reforms, like a defined benefit approach to Medicare that offers an equal amount of premium support to private and public plans. 


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