A sucker’s bet

A SUCKER’S BET…. The effort to pass a budget for the remainder of the fiscal year will be the principal challenge for policymakers over the next few days, but while that work continues, congressional Republicans will also start a massive fight over the next budget.

We’ll have more on this later — sneak preview: the GOP wants to gut entitlements — but as the process gets underway, it’s worth pausing to appreciate the politics here. The Weekly Standard‘s Stephen Hayes has a lengthy new report, arguing that Republicans are prepared to “gamble on entitlement reform,” and the GOP thinks it can win this time.

If there is one thing that political strategists, pollsters, and elected officials of both parties have agreed on for decades, it’s that entitlement reform is a sure political loser. Social Security is the “third rail” — touch it and you die. Suggest changes to Medicaid and you don’t care about the poor. Propose modest reforms to Medicare and you’re the target of a well-funded “Mediscare” campaign that ensures your defeat.

No longer.

“People are getting it that these things are unsustainable,” says Karl Rove. “For so many people, debt is no longer abstract. It’s more concrete. I don’t know if it’s seeing Greece on TV or what. It’s still tough, but it’s not the political loser it used to be.”

Other influential Republicans go further. They believe that getting serious about entitlement reform can be politically advantageous.

“I think it can be a real winner for Republicans if we handle it the right way,” says South Carolina senator Jim DeMint.

The piece goes on to quote all kinds of Republicans, all of whom genuinely seem to believe there’s a public appetite for their entitlement agenda. GOP officials have been too scared to tackle this in earnest before, the theory goes, but bolstered by public support, this time will be different. This time, they say, Americans want entitlement cuts, and Democratic criticisms will fall on deaf ears.

Time will tell, I suppose, but all of the available evidence suggests these folks have no idea what they’re talking about, and are poised to pursue one of the most dramatic examples of political overreach we’ve seen in a very long time.

Republicans can presumably read polls as easily as I can, but let’s focus for a moment on the latest CNN poll, released late last week. Asked, for example, about Medicaid funding, a combined 75% want funding levels to stay the same or go up. For Social Security, 87% of Americans want funding levels to stay the same or go up. For Medicare, 87% want funding levels to stay the same or go up — and most want funding to increase, not stay the same.

For some reason, Hayes and his allies look at numbers like these and think Republicans will benefit from pushing entitlement cuts. No, seriously, that’s what they think. GOP leaders are not only arguing this, they’re actually counting on it as part of a larger political strategy.

Karl Rove, ostensibly the GOP’s most gifted strategist, believes Americans may be “seeing Greece on TV,” and suddenly find themselves favoring Medicare cuts.

I don’t think he’s kidding.

Hayes noted in his piece, “So have things really changed? We’ll soon find out.”

On this point, we agree.