Reminder: To Conservatives, It’s Not Just About the Money

As every fiscal dispute between the two parties–and blame for the impasse–is relitigated in the days before the sequester hits, there’s a misunderstanding to which many progressives continue to fall prey. It’s that since the president has put “entitlement reform” on the table as a theoretical bargaining chip he’s willing to exchange for significant new revenues, then the problem is that conservatives aren’t actually willing to go along with any additional revenues for anything.

The problem here isn’t so much that conservatives value “entitlement reform” less than they claim (vis a vis holding the line on taxes for the wealthy): it’s that conservatives only consider major benefit cuts and structural changes in Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security “entitlement reform.” When the administration talks about major long-term reductions in Medicare and Medicaid spending via major government-driven changes in how health care is delivered and how much is paid, conservatives go “la-la-la-la can’t hear you.”

For some perhaps that’s because they don’t believe government can actually execute cost containment via its purchasing power without major reductions in the quality of care. But for others it’s because the point isn’t to save money, it’s to shrink government, and the “immoral” dependence on it that middle-class entitlements symbolize.

There’s an interesting middle ground of proposals that cut benefits but don’t change the basic structure of the entitlements. They include ideas like “chained CPI,” adjustments in the retirement age, and greater means-testing that the president has hinted he might accept in a really “grand” bargain. I get the impression conservatives are a bit conflicted on the value of these kind of benefit cuts: they’re not the sort of root-and-branch change or wholesale privatization they want, but have the value of “breaking the seal” on entitlement reform and giving bipartisan cover to much more radical proposals from the Right.

The bottom line, though, is that your average conservative is as focused on breaking down the New Deal/Great Society safety net as your average progressive is in maintaining it more or less exactly as it is. In this struggle, money is a talking point, but not the actual center of the argument.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.