What GOP leaders were thinking on Medicare

A couple of weeks ago, when the House Republican plan to scrap Medicare was imploding, Atrios asked a good question: “What were they thinking?”

The answer was far from obvious. GOP leaders had to know the seriousness of the risk, and realize Democrats would never give in on such an idea. So why force their own caucus to put their careers and majority on the line for an agenda that was bound to fail anyway?

Among the possibilities was the notion that Republicans are so stuck in epistemic closure that they thought their plan would be popular. As it turns out, that’s not it.

It might be a political time bomb — that’s what GOP pollsters warned as House Republicans prepared for the April 15 vote on Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposed budget, with its plan to dramatically remake Medicare.

No matter how favorably pollsters with the Tarrance Group or other firms spun the bill in their pitch — casting it as the only path to saving the beloved health entitlement for seniors — the Ryan budget’s approval rating barely budged above the high-30s or its disapproval below 50 percent, according to a Republican operative familiar with the presentation.

The poll numbers on the plan were so toxic — nearly as bad as those of President Barack Obama’s health reform bill at the nadir of its unpopularity — that staffers with the National Republican Congressional Committee warned leadership, “You might not want to go there” in a series of tense pre-vote meetings.

OK, so epistemic closure wasn’t to blame. Republicans knew they were inviting a political disaster, but they jumped off the cliff anyway.

So what were they thinking? The report from Glenn Thrush and Jake Sherman notes that some prominent House Republicans argued against the radical agenda, but those voices were overruled.

According to a top GOP consultant involved in the debate, Republican leaders, including Speaker John Boehner, ultimately concluded they had to be “true to the people who put us here” — and that meant giving the right-wing base something they, and only they, would like.

The report added, “Republican sources said Boehner, who has struggled to control his rambunctious new majority, needed to send a message to conservative upstarts that he was serious about bold fiscal reform — especially after some of the 63 freshmen rebelled against his 2011 budget deal that averted a government shutdown.” The Speaker also came to believe he lacked the political clout with his own caucus to derail the plan, even if he wanted to, so he got on board.

What a fiasco. The party backed a wildly-unpopular plan, reinvigorated Democrats, and the right-wing base isn’t especially impressed anyway. All the GOP has to look forward to are attack ads and severe electoral setbacks.

Postscript: It’s worth noting that the Politico article reports, simply as a matter of fact, that the House Republican leaders intended to “boldly position their party as a beacon of fiscal responsibility.” What the article doesn’t note is that this is absurd — there’s nothing fiscally responsible about the House GOP plan. The numbers don’t add up; the finances are fraudulent; and even the Medicare “savings” would be applied to tax cuts, not deficit reduction. The media really needs to start understanding this.