My first post on Paul Ryan’s budget yesterday, which relied on Ezra Klein’s analysis of its contents, suggested that Ryan and the GOP had decided to go in the political path of least resistance, concentrating very heavy spending cuts on the younger and poorer voters that largely won’t support them anyway, and giving older and whiter voters a break, if only by holding this particular generation of seniors harmless in Social Security and Medicare.

This morning Ezra reaches the same conclusion, but without having to attribute any partisan intent to the GOP:

I don’t think Paul Ryan intended to write a budget that concentrated its cuts on the poorest Americans. Similarly, I don’t think Mitt Romney intended to write a budget that concentrated its cuts on the poorest Americans. But there’s a reason their budgets turned out so similar: The Republican Party has settled on four overlapping fiscal commitments that leave them with few other choices.

The Republican plans we’ve seen share a few basic premises. First, taxes are too high, and must be cut. Second, defense spending is too low, and should be raised. Third, major changes to entitlement programs should be passed now, but they shouldn’t affect the current generation of retirees. That would all be fine, except for the fourth premise, which is that short-term deficits are a serious threat to the country and they need to be swiftly cut.

The first three budget premises means that taxes and defense will contribute more to the deficit, and Medicare and Social Security aren’t available for quick savings. That leaves programs for the poor as the only major programs available to bear cuts. But now cuts to those programs have to pay for the deficit reduction, the increased defense spending, and the tax cuts. That means the cuts to those programs have to be really, really, really deep. The authors have no other choice.

This is all quite true. And in the end, it probably doesn’t matter if Ryan and Romney and other Republicans are driven to extremes on the budget by cynical partisan political calculations or by the remorseless math dictated by their ideological principles. It’s one of the great ironies of contemporary politics that the Republican Party has become the old white people’s party precisely at the time when conservatives most have the motive and perhaps the opportunity to pursue its age-old dream of reversing the New Deal and Great Society by crippling Social Security and Medicare. When they decide to leave Social Security alone for the moment and give current Medicare beneficiaries a pass, is it because they are cynically protecting their own voting base, or because it’s just not fair to ambush seniors with immediate changes when the big budget savings from “entitlement reform” are generated in the out-years anyway?

I can’t peer into their hearts and answer this question, and Ezra’s probably wise to adopt the explanation that least relies on invidious GOP motives. It may also just depend: some Republicans consider programs helping the poor inherently evil and would support their elimination even if the federal budget were running a vast surplus, but I don’t think that’s true of every single one of them. And like a lot of people in all walks of life, a lot of these pols don’t really think much at all beyond whatever they are told to do and whatever it takes to get to the end of the day.

In any event, I think we can all agree that when political self-interest and ideology and budgetary math all point Republican policymakers in exactly the same direction, that’s where they are going. Too bad for poor people: they literally don’t have a vote on the matter.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.