The Campaign Spot

Entitlement Reform? That’s Been Dead Since Last November

A reader looks at Michael Steele’s all-out pitch to seniors and laments:

That’s the end of any hope of entitlement reform, isn’t it? I think Ross Douthat was right — the Republicans are completely trashing their principles in their eagerness to pile on and win in 2010. What in the world will it be worth? Every liberal Democrat who sees this thing will store it for the inevitable day when someone wants to do something remotely responsible about entitlements. It will be very useful for them to quote in their attack ads.

They can of course claim that they meant to protect only “the Greatest Generation,” not the masses of Boomers who have not even begun to reach 65 yet, but I doubt that will carry much conviction. Any attempt to cut their entitlements will drive them straight back into the arms of the Democrats. Morris may be right that the elderly can change their voting habits, but the greatest generation is passing from the scene, and the near-elderly who will age into their positions are a very different question. This is shortsighted partisan hackery, in my view.

It’s a good point, with a caveat. I hate to be gloomy on this front, but the voters effectively killed most serious entitlement-reform options last November. Sure, Obama makes noises on this front every couple of weeks, but if there’s one hallmark of this young administration, it’s been its difficulty summoning the will to say “no” on spending. An administration that pats itself on the back for cutting $100 million in meetings in Australia and office renovations isn’t likely to have the will to tell Americans that their benefit checks will be getting smaller. The president is burning through his political capital with great speed; the health-care fight will probably use every last drop. Card check, illegal-immigration amnesty, cap-and-trade, Afghanistan . . . does anyone see this administration going all-out to, say, reduce Social Security benefits or limit who can collect it? Beyond that, entitlement reform proved impossible in much better economic conditions. It’s pretty much unthinkable until there is a widespread sense that the recession has passed, which may take us to 2011 . . .

Not all of the blame can be laid at the feet of the administration; a public that worries about long-term economic consequences doesn’t elect guys like Barack Obama. Maybe they don’t elect guys like John McCain, either; Fred Thompson talked entitlement reform the most on the campaign trail last year and generated yawns.

Also note that nothing in the Seniors’ Health Care Bill of Rights precludes, say, means-testing Social Security or Medicare.

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