“Whatever you do, don’t serve to his backhand.”
“Don’t be nervous. I have the new Ryan serve. It’s bold!”
“Trust me on this. Don’t serve to his backhand.”
Here’s a basic fact of American politics. The American people like Medicare. They are not so enthusiastic about tax cuts for the rich.
Those of us on the political right have different preferences. We believe that low rates for high earners accelerate economic growth. We believe that the cost of Medicare must be restrained. And I think we have a lot of good arguments on our side.
But we must never deceive ourselves: We are arguing for policies with a lot of political negatives attached to them. Which means we have to take some basic political precautions.
In the current Republican mood, however, precautions are for girlie-men. Republicans have succumbed to a strange mood of simultaneous euphoria and paranoia. Republicans have convinced themselves both that: (1) American freedom stands in imminent danger of disappearing into totalitarian night; and (2) that the vast majority of the great and good American people are yearning for a mighty rollback of big government, even at considerable personal sacrifice.
And so Republicans have united around Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) proposal that for the first time in modern conservative history explicitly joins a big tax cut for the rich to big cuts in health care spending for virtually everybody else. If this were a tennis game, the Republicans would be placing the ball in exactly the spot on the court where it must never, ever go.
Take a look at Wednesday’s USA Today/Gallup poll.
Medicare remains hugely popular. By 2-to-1 margins, Americans reject changes to Medicare. Even among self-identified Republicans, one-third reject changes to Medicare.
So how do Americans want to balance the budget? By raising taxes on the rich! Fifty-nine percent favor raising taxes on those who earn more than $250,000.
Let me repeat and stipulate: I agree that raising marginal income taxes would be a big mistake. I agree with those conservative Republicans who wish that marginal taxes could be reduced further and soon.
But if we are to get to lower tax rates, we must get there via tax reform — eliminating deductions, and substituting new taxes on energy and consumption.
Meanwhile, health care spending must be treated as a separate problem, with the focus on reforms to control costs — including squeezing payments to health care providers like insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and doctors.
That’s not what happened. The Republican insistence on joining two negatives in hopes of producing one positive opened the way to President Obama’s speech Wednesday.
That speech was not so especially eloquent. It was, however, very effective. It frames the debate in a way that is maximally useful for Democrats. This framing was made possible by the efforts of Republicans themselves, blinded by their own hopes, misdirected by their own messaging.
It’s exactly like what happened on health care reform, where Republicans persuaded themselves they had Obama on the ropes even as he succeeded in enacting the most important new entitlement since 1965. We went for all the marbles, and ended with none. Now I fear we are doing it again.
Originally published in The Week.