Five years ago, when Sen. Barack Obama was running for president, he’d occasionally be confronted with the media’s all-purpose stumper for liberals. What, a host or moderator would ask, would you do to tackle entitlements? Obama would say whatever he needed to say.
“We're going to have to take on entitlements and I think we've got to do it quickly,” he promised in his second debate with Sen. John McCain. “We're going to have a lot of work to do, so I can't guarantee that we're going to do it in the next two years, but I'd like to do it in my first term as president.”
Obama’s first two years in office were defined by the Affordable Care Act, which actually did cut the rate of growth in Medicare spending. (Democrats were reminded of that in countless campaign ads.) But “entitlement reform,” as defined in Washington, meant much more. After Republicans won the House of Representatives, with polls showing voters panicking about the national debt, the president used his 2011 State of the Union address to endorse “a bipartisan solution to strengthen Social Security for future generations.” During the long, hot, pathetic summer of the debt limit, the president proposed a change in the formula that determined Social Security benefits. Just this year, his budget offered up that tweak—one that would shrink checks for millions of people—as a sop to Republicans. Even Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said he was “encouraged.”
But now, look at the Budget Conference Committee’s two-year plan—or “the Murray–Ryan plan,” as the gods of brief headlines have dubbed it. It restores some of the money cut by sequestration, and it makes federal employees put up more of their own money for their pensions. It doesn’t even scratch entitlements. Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan has made a chipper (and seemingly successful) pitch to conservatives about how the deal tackles “automatic spending,” but that’s rhetorical taekwondo, an attempt to put $12 billion of pension savings on the level of trillion-dollar entitlements.
On Wednesday, as Ryan sold the plan to Republicans, the old “debt crisis” rhetoric that defined 2011 and 2012 had vanished completely. Republicans had spent most of 2013 calling sequestration a win for the party, something that cut the deficit and gave them “leverage” for the next rounds of talks. That was the point of sequestration, that its general offensiveness would force both parties back to long-term spending negotiations, and that the entitlement state would take a hit.
And then the budget negotiated by Ryan actually blew through the $967 billion sequestration spending cap for the next fiscal year. Oh, well.
“Sometimes it’s better to go in with a scalpel than it is cutting across the board,” suggested Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar, a class of 2010 Tea Partier who often votes against bipartisan deals. “Maybe that’s what people are starting to realize. If what you’re doing actually gets to a better means of cutting spending down the road, that’s something to consider.”
If, then, maybe later—but didn’t Republicans get a chance at actual entitlement cuts, then blow it? Back in 2011, when they had Obama on the ropes, couldn’t they have gotten a Democratic president to swing the ax at Social Security? Remember how S&P downgraded America’s credit rating because “the fiscal consolidation plan that Congress and the Administration recently agreed to falls short of what, in our view, would be necessary to stabilize the government's medium-term debt dynamics”? Couldn’t they have gotten more than that?
They choose not to think so. “I don’t believe the White House ever agreed to that,” said Louisiana Rep. John Fleming, after being pitched on the Ryan–Murray budget. “I believe that was a bait and switch. [Obama’s] famous for this—remember how the discussion with Boehner broke down? He would throw things on the table, and then, when we would grab them, he’d back away from them.”
Tennessee Rep. Diane Black, another class of 2010 member, was one of the more conservative Republicans in the Ryan–Murray budget conference. Social Security cuts, she said, were indeed, sort of, “on the table” before the talks started.
“But you probably saw that even before we had our first meeting, Democrats were saying they wouldn’t even support their own president and consider it,” said an exasperated Black. “You’ve got Democrats out there saying there’s a nuclear option here—they wouldn’t even talk about it!”
Black wasn’t saying it explicitly, but in this version of the story the parties had reversed their roles in the “narrative.” The Republicans—Paul Ryan especially—were bravely compromising to keep the government running and end the era of Dec. 31 kludge-o-matic deals. The Democrats, they were the intransigent ones, the short-sighted deal-killers.
The Democrats will proudly wear that label, at least when it comes to Social Security. Yes, the most progressive members of the party had sworn not to support a “grand bargain” or sequestration fix that cut Social Security. They’ll tell you they were proven right.
“The people that say ‘we need to deal with entitlements’ are the ones who want to cut Social Security,” said Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat who’s been arguing that Social Security needs to be expanded. “I just think there’s no appetite to do that on the Democratic side. Fundamentally, the debate should be on retirement security, not on how we use retirement security to deal with budget issues. I know Social Security can be fixed long term, pretty easily, because we can predict the costs. A lot of Democrats are now understanding that we should have a debate about Social Security, not the budget. If the debate’s about Social Security, we win.”
And they did win. At a Wednesday forum put on by the Heritage Foundation, eight conservative members of Boehner’s conference took turns explaining why the Democrats had crushed them. “Until today, I thought Republicans were going to hold the line on the sequester,” said Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador. “Democrats realized they were right all along, that we were never going to hold the line.”
“Look, we got beat,” said South Carolina Rep. Mick Mulvaney. “We don’t have the votes. Our opening position was the law [of sequestration caps]. Their opening position is to break the law. When those are the two starting positions, the compromise will be to break the law.”
Now that they’ve lost, what’s the future of that entitlement reform President Obama keeps saying he’s ready for? How will Republicans force him to the proverbial table where all Washington deals are birthed?
They don’t know. A slowly growing economy, higher taxes, and trimmed spending has cut the deficit down to half of its recession high. Fix the Debt, the $43 million advocacy group that staged press conference after stunt after press conference to “seize the moment” on entitlement reform, is winding down and shedding staff. The 2013 budget agreement pays for a smaller government than Democrats would have liked. It also concludes the short era of Grand Bargaining. They’ll take that deal.