The need for partisan cover

THE NEED FOR PARTISAN COVER…. For all the talk about “entitlements” as the budget fight(s) begins in earnest, it’s worth noting that congressional Republicans aren’t exactly on the same page. I don’t just mean that GOP lawmakers disagree on the scope of proposed cuts to Social Security and Medicare, I mean Republicans aren’t even sure how they want to pursue the issue with the White House.

Reader G.S. emails this piece, and asks an interesting question.

One day after President Obama submitted his budget request for fiscal 2012 to Capitol Hill, congressional Republicans assailed the document as too weak on spending. But they also signaled an openness to working with Democrats to solve the nation’s financial problems.

The mixed message reflects uncertainty among resurgent Republicans about how best to address the concerns of voters — and satisfy the demands of restless freshman members of their own party.

Some Republicans, particularly those in the House, want to force an immediate showdown with Democrats: GOP leaders have included sharp cuts to federal agencies in a must-pass spending measure that would keep the government open through September. Other Republicans, including many longtime senators, want to seize the moment to join Democrats in overhauling politically sensitive programs such as Social Security and Medicare, the biggest drivers of future spending.

These differences matter, of course. How and whether the GOP decides on a strategy will be critical in, say, avoiding a government shutdown.

But G.S. asks, “I don’t get the Republican strategy. They can spend ’11 and ’12 in skirmishes with Obama. Then they use it against him next year and elect President Romney. In ’13, GOPers run Washington and cut entitlements all they want. Why look for a dea with Obamal? It’s not like they like bipartisanship.”

It’s a fair point. The answer, I suspect, is that they need bipartisan cover on entitlements. If a Republican Congress and a Republican White House tried to tackle this sort of undertaking on their own — as they did in 2005 on Social Security privatization — they’d face an aggressive, organized, well-coordinated opposition. What’s more, they’d very likely lose and pay a steep price.

It’s one of the reasons why the subject is coming up at all — Republicans want to tackle the policy, but need a Democratic White House to make it work politically.

The president alluded to this yesterday at a press conference: “[T]his is not a matter of ‘you go first’ or ‘I go first.’ This is a matter of everybody having a serious conversation about where we want to go, and then ultimately getting in that boat at the same time so it doesn’t tip over.”

It creates a series of incentives — Republicans get the policy they’re looking for with the partisan cover they need; Obama’s re-election prospects get a boost by striking a deal on an issue that seems to matter.