To continue some thoughts about the growing contradiction between conservative policy predilections and the GOP’s violent anti-spending rhetoric, there’s a specific political factor that’s intensifying the dilemma: the heavy, heavy reliance of Republicans on support from whiteseniors.
Several smart commentators (Chait, Douthat, and Larison) have drawn attention to a new Pew survey on generational political attitudes which shows the exceptionally geriatric nature of the Republican Party’s current base of support. That’s a good thing for Republicans in the very short term, since seniors tend to vote at disproportionately high levels in midterm elections. But it’s not easy to be the Party That Hates Government Spending when your most important constituency is receiving Medicare and Social Security benefits. Here’s how Ross Douthat puts it:
[Y]ou can win an awful lot of elections just by mobilizing the over-65 constituency — they’re well-informed, they turn out to vote, and there are more of them every day. But the easiest way to do it, as the Democrats proved for years and years and years, is to defend Medicare and Social Security like McAuliffe at Bastogne. This means that while the energy of activists may be pushing the Republicans to the right on size-of-government issues, the concerns of their central constituency could end up pulling them inexorably leftward on entitlements….
This wouldn’t be a terrible thing if Social Security and (especially) Medicare accounted for, say, ten percent of the federal budget. But where the size of government — and if we ever want to cut the deficit, the burden of taxation — is concerned, they’ll be the whole ballgame soon enough. And if the Republican Party depends too heavily on over-65 voters for its political viability, we could easily end up with a straightforwardly big-government party in the Democrats, and a G.O.P. that wins election by being “small government” on the small stuff (earmarks, etc.) while refusing to even consider entitlement reform.
Now that’s how it looks if you are simply considering the fiscal numbers. But from a psychological point of view, there’s another problem for conservatives: how to rationalize a posture of maximum defense of Social Security and Medicare with a general hostility to transfer payments. The only obvious way to do that is to treat senior entitlements as benefits earned by virtuous old folks, as opposed to unvirtuous younger folks whose demands for “welfare” are to be resisted and demonized at all costs. You don’t have to hold a negative view of conservative motives to see how this can lead to highly invidious, and perhaps semi-racist, political appeals. Indeed, the current position of Republicans all but demands that they encourage seniors to view public life as a struggle to keep their own public benefits and their own private wealth against rapacious efforts by “elitists” and welfare “looters” to reduce their share of federal spending while increasing their taxes. And that’s a temptation Republican politicians don’t seem inclined to resist, illogical and immoral as it might be.
It’s not clear how long GOPers will continue to maintain this odd mixture of pro-government policies and anti-government rhetoric (a contradiction that extends, of course, to conservatives’ lust for ever-higher defense spending and foreign policy adventurism). But at present, they might as well emblazon on their Tea Party banners the legend: “Don’t Tread On My Medicare!”
UPDATE: One obvious way around the GOP’s dilemma on entitlements is simply to “grandfather” current beneficiaries and introduce radical changes for younger generations. That’s how Rep. Paul Ryan’s Medicare Voucher proposal–central to the congressional Republican “plans” for both health care and the budget–operates. And that’s explicitly what Tim Pawlenty is talking about doing with both Medicare and Social Security.
It remains to be seen if this approach, which for all the talk about “keeping promises to seniors” sure looks like a cynical effort to buy off a demographic group that favors Republicans at the expense of groups less inclined–will fly with seniors or with anyone else. It does nicely comport with the “I’ve got mine! To hell with the rest of you!” spirit that Republicans are carefully cultivating among older white voters.