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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Discordant Voices on Entitlements

Do you think Democrats are divided over the necessity or advisability of thinking about “entitlement reform?” Maybe, but that’s in part because Democrats have somewhat different ideas about how to maintain a robust and progressive social safety net.
Among Republicans, there’s little or no substantive disagreement about the desire to transform Social Security and Medicare into something radically different. But when it comes to politics–well, just check out two prominent GOP voices on this subject that were raised this very day.
Today New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie came to Washington and made a well-received speech at the American Enterprise Institute thundering against the cowards in Congress and demanding an immediate Republican assault on Social Security and Medicare as a simple measurement of “spine.” There’s no speech text available just yet, but believe me, Christie sounds a lot like Howard Dean circa late 2003 challenging the guts of his party colleagues on Iraq.
And yet here is Rich Lowry of National Review, by any conventional measure a much more conservative figure than Christie, making a very different calculation:

The public opposes cuts in Social Security and Medicare, and most Republicans did nothing to signal on the campaign trail that they’d do anything to touch them — in fact, most of them ran against Obama’s Medicare cuts. Changing popular programs without an explicit mandate to do so is a perilous business. It may be that the public is in a Chris Christie “give it to us straight” mood, and House Republican work on the entitlement front will dovetail with the bipartisan effort developing in the Senate, forcing President Obama to make good on his oft-expressed interest in reform and making real progress possible. It also may be that the House Republicans will repeat the experience of their forebears in 1995-96, who didn’t run on Medicare cuts, made them a centerpiece of their budget-balancing anyway, and got killed, setting back the limited-government cause for more than a decade.

As Jonathan Chait notes, Lowry goes on to endorse an assault on Medicaid–not a program of enormous interest to the old-white-folk base of the GOP, except for those who can’t afford nursing home care–and perhaps some cautious probing on Medicare. But in a context where pols like Christie (and others) are loudly trying to shame Republicans into expressing the courage of their actual convictions on Social Security and Medicare, such tactics may ring hollow both within and beyond the conservative movement.

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