How Both Parties Ignore What Their Voters Want

Republicans and Democrats cling to budget stances at odds with the interests of their bases.

Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum supporters listen as he addresses a town hall meeting in Hollis, New Hampshire, January 7, 2012. New Hampshire will hold its Republican primaries on January 10, 2012. 
AFP/Getty Images
Ronald Brownstein
Oct. 24, 2013, 5 p.m.

One reas­on a ser­i­ous budget ne­go­ti­ation seems un­likely this fall is that any mean­ing­ful as­sault on the fed­er­al de­fi­cit would re­quire each party to con­front the con­tra­dic­tions between its fisc­al agenda and its elect­or­al co­ali­tion.

Two long-term trends are cre­at­ing this ten­sion. One is an elect­or­al re­shuff­ling: Re­pub­lic­ans in­creas­ingly de­pend on sup­port from older whites, even as Demo­crats rely more on the youth­ful-tilt­ing minor­ity pop­u­la­tion. The second is the fed­er­al budget’s shift in fo­cus from chil­dren (al­most half of whom are now non­white) to seni­ors (about four-fifths of whom re­main white). The in­ter­sec­tion of these dy­nam­ics has left each party ad­van­cing budget blue­prints that col­lide with the self-in­terest of their core sup­port­ers.

Head­ing in­to budget ne­go­ti­ations, the top pri­or­ity for many Re­pub­lic­ans re­mains lim­it­ing Medi­care, Medi­caid, and maybe So­cial Se­cur­ity, the Big Three seni­or en­ti­tle­ments. The con­tra­dic­tion they face is that the people be­ne­fit­ing from those pro­grams now com­prise the core of their elect­or­al co­ali­tion.

The GOP pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee has car­ried most white seni­ors in four con­sec­ut­ive pres­id­en­tial elec­tions, and by great­er mar­gins each time. In 2012, whites over 45 sup­plied Mitt Rom­ney with nearly three-fifths of his votes, even though they made up about only two-fifths of all voters. Census fig­ures show that chil­dren con­sti­tute about the same share of the pop­u­la­tion (just un­der one-fourth) in House dis­tricts rep­res­en­ted by Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats. Yet whites 55 and older are nearly 22 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion in Re­pub­lic­an-held dis­tricts, com­pared with less than 15 per­cent in those Demo­crats con­trol. Even more strik­ingly, 164 House Re­pub­lic­ans rep­res­ent dis­tricts where the share of 55-plus whites ex­ceeds the na­tion­al av­er­age. That’s true for only 74 House Demo­crats.

These older whites deeply res­ist any changes in So­cial Se­cur­ity and Medi­care, which most con­sider in­sur­ance they have paid for, not a gov­ern­ment be­ne­fit (al­though stud­ies show older Amer­ic­ans re­ceive much more in life­time be­ne­fits than they pay in taxes). In United Tech­no­lo­gies/Na­tion­al Journ­al Con­gres­sion­al Con­nec­tion polling this month, fully four-fifths of whites over 50 op­posed any re­duc­tions in either So­cial Se­cur­ity or Medi­care. These older white voters are much more pas­sion­ate about cut­ting pro­grams that trans­fer re­sources to the poor, such as food stamps (three-fifths of older whites would cut the pro­gram at least some­what) and Pres­id­ent Obama’s health care law.

The GOP’s fisc­al agenda has partly re­flec­ted these pri­or­it­ies. The party con­tin­ues scorched-earth op­pos­i­tion to Obama­care, and House Re­pub­lic­ans re­cently voted for deep cuts in food stamps (al­most half of whose be­ne­fits flow to­ward chil­dren). The plan from Rep. Paul Ry­an, R-Wis., to con­vert Medi­care in­to a vouch­er, or “premi­um sup­port,” sys­tem would shel­ter the staunchest GOP voters by ex­empt­ing any­one over 55.

But the de­mands from GOP lead­ers to squeeze middle-class en­ti­tle­ments such as Medi­care in any budget deal still col­lide with the pref­er­ences of both older and blue-col­lar whites, an­oth­er key GOP group. That ten­sion, con­ser­vat­ive Wall Street Journ­al colum­nist Hol­man Jen­kins pre­dicted re­cently, will stead­ily drain GOP en­thu­si­asm for re­trench­ing big middle-class en­ti­tle­ments and in­stead prompt them to frame “fights “¦ between Mr. Obama’s “˜un­earned’ handouts and the “˜earned’ handouts of the tra­di­tion­al en­ti­tle­ments.” Temp­ted by that elect­or­al op­por­tun­ity (which Rom­ney’s 2012 cam­paign pre­viewed), Re­pub­lic­ans may be less en­thu­si­ast­ic than they now ap­pear about shrink­ing en­ti­tle­ments without sig­ni­fic­ant Demo­crat­ic cov­er.

Demo­crats face the op­pos­ite di­lemma. For dec­ades, they have watched ex­pand­ing en­ti­tle­ments tilt fed­er­al spend­ing to­ward the eld­erly. In 1960, chil­dren and seni­ors each con­sumed around one-fifth of fed­er­al do­mest­ic spend­ing, the Urb­an In­sti­tute cal­cu­lates. Today, chil­dren re­ceive less than one-third as much as seni­ors, a trend re­in­forced by the se­quester (which hits dis­cre­tion­ary pro­grams like Head Start while largely ex­empt­ing en­ti­tle­ments). The kids’ share of the budget isn’t re­ced­ing for lack of need: Al­most half of all K-12 pub­lic-school stu­dents now come from fam­il­ies that earn little enough to qual­i­fy for free or sub­sid­ized school lunches, the South­ern Edu­ca­tion Found­a­tion found re­cently.

En­ter­ing ne­go­ti­ations, many Demo­crats have made op­pos­i­tion to en­ti­tle­ment cuts a lit­mus test. But with the seni­or pop­u­la­tion pro­jec­ted to double through 2040, re­ject­ing all en­ti­tle­ment re­duc­tions en­sures both more pres­sure on dis­cre­tion­ary in­vest­ments like edu­ca­tion that help young people and un­sus­tain­able tax bur­dens on fu­ture work­ers. That leaves Demo­crats con­front­ing their own con­tra­dic­tion: They are now fa­vor­ing pro­grams that be­ne­fit pre­dom­in­antly white seni­ors who lop­sidedly vote against them over policies that be­ne­fit the heav­ily di­verse young people who strongly sup­port them. Even a near-term trade of trim­ming en­ti­tle­ments to re­store se­quester-starved do­mest­ic in­vest­ment could make sense for Demo­crats.

The budget isn’t a zero-sum struggle between kids and seni­ors, the brown and the gray. A gen­er­a­tion­ally equit­able, growth-pro­mot­ing deal would ex­pand in­vest­ment in chil­dren, im­pose reas­on­able lim­its on de­fense, raise taxes to ac­know­ledge that gov­ern­ment will cost more in a so­ci­ety with twice as many seni­ors, and con­strain en­ti­tle­ments so that the gray wave doesn’t swamp everything else. Neither party, giv­en the de­mands in­side its co­ali­tion, can pro­duce such a bal­anced solu­tion alone. The two sides likely won’t ac­know­ledge it any­time soon, but only by link­ing arms can they re­bal­ance Wash­ing­ton’s pri­or­it­ies between in­vest­ment and con­sump­tion — and between the young and the old.

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