Gail Collins has an interesting column about why it is that the Republicans have lost it over Obamacare. There are many reasons for the hysteria, of course — it’s one of those things that is entirely overdetermined. But Collins thinks that a big part of the answer is, very simply, that although they hate entitlements with a passion, they can’t go after Medicare and Social Security any more, because those two programs are sacred cows to their elderly voter base. Here’s Collins:

But here’s my long-term theory. Over the past few years, Republicans have terrified their most fervent followers about Obamacare in order to disguise the fact that they no longer knew what to say about their old bête noir, entitlements. Now they can’t turn the temperature down.

Let’s review. Not so very long ago, worrying about entitlements was central to Republican identity. Then, they began to notice that the folks at their rallies looked like the audience for “Matlock” reruns. The base was aging, and didn’t want to change Social Security or Medicare. The base didn’t even want to be reminded that Social Security and Medicare were federal programs.

Collins gives many recent examples of the spectacle of Republicans falling all over themselves to defend Social Security and/or Medicare:

During the last Republican primary debates, Gov. Rick Perry called Social Security a “Ponzi scheme.” Mitt Romney jumped all over him, then raced off to tell a conservative talk show host that if the Republicans nominated someone with Perry’s view on Social Security “we would be obliterated as a party.”

This year, when President Obama proposed a budget that actually did reduce the rate at which Social Security benefits would rise in the future, the chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee denounced it as “a shocking attack on seniors.

People like Paul Ryan still fiddled with Medicare, but only in wonkese that didn’t trickle down to the public. There were vague references to the need to “protect” programs for the elderly. But the party had lost its old rallying cry. Enter health care reform.

In fact, they’ve now decided they love Medicare so much that they’re claiming that the ACA poses a threat to it:

All over the nation, Tea Party politicians have been telling their most fervid constituents that Obamacare will bring the federal government into the nation’s health system, thus wrecking the wonderful coverage they now enjoy with Medicare. Which comes into their homes through the chimney, where it is dropped by free-enterprise storks.

I just wonder where all this leads for them. Do they have no strategy, ever, of trying to attract a broader base, a base that may well decide it likes the ACA? They’re probably reckoning that, by the time they need to/choose to reach out, so many years will have gone by that few people will remember their initial hatred of the law. After all, they are so shameless that they have no problem posing, now, as the ardent defenders of Social Security and Medicare, two programs that, historically, they despised. In years to come, what’s to stop them from embracing ACA as well?

Or maybe I’m just overthinking this. Judging by its recent actions, the G.O.P. is behaving very much as if the future doesn’t figure into its calculations at all. If they cared very much about the future of the Republicans a viable national party, it’s hard to believe they’d be taking so many actions that alienate key demographic groups (Latinos, women, young people) now.

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Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee