Remember this as the week both parties staked out their turf for the 2012 election, offering starkly contrasting visions for dealing with the national debt and government spending that will define each in voters’ minds.
The interesting thing about the debate over how to trim the skyrocketing national debt, though, is that both parties are treading on dangerous political ground, opening themselves up to the kinds of 30-second campaign spots that could, in the heat of a preelection sprint, threaten both sides.
Republicans began the debate last week, when House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., released a budget that would significantly overhaul Medicare. The proposal would create a voucher system to allow younger workers, once they become Medicare beneficiaries, to receive a voucher to choose their own medical coverage. Doing so, Ryan argued, would put Medicare on a path to fiscal solvency.
In starting the conversation on entitlement spending, Ryan has kicked off what could be a years-long process of revamping programs that make up the majority of the federal budget. No effort to reduce the deficit will be serious unless it takes a hard look at overhauling entitlement programs.
But talking about revamping entitlements carries an inherent political risk. By bringing up Medicare, Ryan has opened his party to Democratic attacks.
Already, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has blasted the GOP, accusing it of backing a budget that would force seniors to choose between food and medicine.
Still, some Republicans point out they at least got points for trying. “When we introduced our budget, even Democrats gave us credit,” said House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
Ryan did not go into the debate unaware of the risk. “Everyone tells me that I’m giving our political adversaries this massive political weapon to use in the next campaign. Yeah, we are,” Ryan told the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board this week. But, he added, congressional Republicans are unafraid of the consequences.
“These are cause people, not career people. They didn’t come to Washington fearing a political ad. They had [ads] running against them already. I don’t think they care if they lose,” Ryan said in Chicago.
“The American public is in a very different place. They’re looking for someone who would tell them the truth,” McCarthy said in an interview. “The country realizes that we’re going bankrupt. I don’t think politics plays a role this time.”
Democrats are moving to set up a starkly contrasting style. In his address at George Washington University on Wednesday, President Obama laid out an alternative case, based largely on proposals from his deficit-reduction commission.
Obama’s approach hinges on the commission’s recommendation that tackling the debt will involve cutting programs as well as raising taxes on the wealthy by repealing some of the Bush-era tax cuts.
“We will all need to make sacrifices. But we do not have to sacrifice the America we believe in. And as long as I’m president, we won’t,” Obama said.
Top Democrats say that will be a key distinction between the two parties heading into the 2012 elections. One strategist close to Obama’s reelection campaign put it succinctly: “It’s a simple argument to say, ‘We tried their way. It didn’t work. The numbers don’t add up. Here’s the better way forward.’ Same old failed past versus improving future with an honest plan.”
In staking out their respective turfs, Democrats and Republicans are both taking a risk. Republicans could alienate seniors, a key group that Democrats are targeting, by taking on a popular entitlement program. For Democrats, the danger is talking about the always unpopular idea of raising taxes in an election year.
Both sides will insist that their true proposals are being taken out of context, but the 30-second attack ads virtually write themselves: Republicans want to put seniors in the poor house, Democrats will say. Democrats are determined to raise your taxes, Republicans will counter.
In making the argument to seniors, Democrats could counter a growing trend of older Americans favoring Republican candidates. In 2008, Obama lost those over 65 by an 8-point margin to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. By 2010, Republicans had expanded their advantage among seniors to 21 points. Reducing that margin will be key for Democrats hoping to win back seats in Congress, especially in states with older populations, such as Florida and Pennsylvania.
A huge number of Americans already think that the GOP budget will unfairly favor some groups over others—68 percent said so in a CNN poll conducted April 9-10 among 824 adults.
Republicans, meanwhile, can drive the debate toward raising taxes, an issue that no Democrat wants to talk about in the final weeks of an election. A survey last month by the Pew Research Center showed that 67 percent of Americans oppose raising taxes as a way to reduce the budget deficit, while 61 percent said they favored cutting domestic spending. That poll, conducted March 8-14, polled 1,525 adults and has a 3-point margin of error.
Both parties have sought to portray themselves as the adults in the room, ready to have a real conversation with the American public about solving the nation’s debt crisis. And both parties are starting their own versions of those conversations. But each side is vulnerable to the other’s baser, more-political instincts. That could spell trouble for both Democrats and Republicans—and for the hopes of solving a mounting crisis through either path.
This article appears in the April 14, 2011, edition of NJ Daily.