There is a political problem at the heart of the budget debate. If Democrats get what they want — tax-rate increases on the wealthy — they can crow about it in public. If Republicans get what they want — structural reductions in entitlement spending — they are unable to crow. Their motivation is fiscal and ideological, not political.Gerson's memory is perhaps too short to recall, but when his former boss, George W. Bush, was elected to office our nation had a budget surplus. A few years later we has massive tax cuts, two unfunded wars, the unfunded Medicare Part D benefit, and a massive budget deficit. And then, for Act 2, we got the collapse of the economy. Their motivation is fiscal? If you believe that the Republican Party cares about balancing the budget, you're a fool.
Remind me again, where was Michael Gerson when the Bush Administration was taking the explicit, public position that deficits don't matter? Oh yeah... he was writing Bush's speeches.
Is Republican opposition to Social Security and Medicare ideological, at least within the party itself? Certainly, but not an ideology born in a vacuum. The ideology that drives the Republican Party to attempt to undermine Social Security and Medicare is very much about politics - it's about pleasing powerful and monied interests that bankroll the party, and is about gaining and holding power over the long term.
If Gerson means to suggest that it's a double-edged sword - that the Republicans accept a certain amount of political risk when they make massive cuts to Medicare and Social Security a central part of their party's ideology, and that they thus misrepresent their motivations and goals so as not to alienate the beneficiaries of those programs - he has a point. But to make that point he has to actually admit that the leaders of his party cannot be trusted to tell the truth. That is to say, opposition may be driven by ideology at the top, but the rank and file Republican voters like Social Security and Medicare. They don't share the ideology of the party's elite, and the Republicans therefore obfuscate lest they find themselves unable to win an election.
The heart of the present conflict is that the Republicans have been lying to the public for years, a lie exemplified by the Romney/Ryan budget proposal. Romney promised that he was going to cut taxes, significantly increase military spending and, although he proposed an idea to transform Medicare into a voucher program starting a decade in the future, that he would maintain Medicare benefits for those 55 and older and would not cut Medicare spending. When he was asked for specifics we got "I'll fire Big Bird".
The truth is, if you want to balance the budget it's going to be painful. If you want to balance the budget without increasing tax revenue, it's going to be extremely painful to the middle class. Gerson had no problem with the Bush-era lie that "deficits don't matter", and he has no problem with the present Republican lie that the budget can be balanced - with trillions freed up for tax cuts and increased military spending - by closing loopholes in a revenue-neutral fashion and eliminating waste. His problem is that the Democrats refuse to take ownership of the Medicare and Social Security cuts his party desires.
In focusing on the specifics of Gerson's mendacity, let's not lose track of the big picture. This Congress cannot bind future sessions of Congress to its spending plan. What Gerson and the Republicans want is not an actual, workable plan to balance the budget over a period of years. They want the President to agree to structural changes to Social Security and Medicare that would be difficult for future sessions of Congress to undo, while offering no assurance that they won't be every bit as profligate and irresponsible as Bush with the "savings" that result.
The President is resisting that "deal", and Gerson's unwilling to articulate the stakes in an honest manner, so instead we get this noisome whinging about how the President is a meany-pants who isn't offering enough concessions to the poor, downtrodden Republicans.