Today, President Obama's reckless budget proposal gave the Republicans ample opportunity for crowing, as it exposed the administration's unseriousness at addressing the nation's debt crisis. Even long time Obama cheerleader Andrew Sullivan was taken aback: "All of us who took Obama's pitch as fiscally responsible were duped."
Yet while the administration provided Republicans with a big pinata today, their celebration could be short-lived. Before too long, the House GOP will have to deliver a budget of its own, and they won't be in an easy position. Given all of the big talk from Republicans today and over the past several years, they'll look like fools unless their budget reduces deficits substantially more than the Obama budget claims to. Yet there's a problem on that front. As everybody knows, the big money is in entitlements, but it's difficult to find immediate savings in these programs.
Many of the most obvious ways to wring savings out of Medicare were already used to pay for the new national health care entitlement Obama created. And during the health care debate, Republicans went after those Medicare cuts ferociously, and then campaigned against them last fall. One of the ways that they were able to reconcile their position was to argue that they don't support cuts to entitlements for those at or near retirement who have built their lives around the current system. That's been the position of Rep. Paul Ryan, now chairman of the Budget Committee. For all the talk of his "Roadmap" being radical, in reality his proposed reforms would be phased in over time, and it would take decades to bring the budget into balance. For instance, according to the Congressional Budget Office, debt would be 69 percent of GDP under the "Roadmap" in 2020, still extraordinarily high even though it would be lower than the 77 percent projected under Obama's proposal (though, granted that 77 percent figure is based on the Obama administration's economic forecasts). The real importance of the "Roadmap" is in reassuring bond markets that America has some sort of plan to gain conrtol of our long-term debt. But politically speaking, the budget impact won't be apparent in the next several years or even decade. And still, Republicans have not embraced the proposal as a party.
So if they aren't ready to endorse something along the lines of the "Roadmap," they're boxed in when it comes to immediate savings on entitlements, and raising taxes or slashing the military budget is out of the question, how are they going to generate massive deficit reduction? It's tough to answer that. There's a conflct between those who want to prove that Republicans mean business and those who are worried that if they come out for drastic cuts that Obama will be able to portray them as extremists. That means they could end up splitting the difference -- with cuts that will be portrayed as draconian in the media and yet still insufficient for the problem at hand.
Obama made a decision today. Instead of being a leader on the nation's biggest long-term challenge, he decided to play politics. But just because he looks foolish today, doesn't mean that his political strategy won't be effective. Paul Ryan definitely has his work cut out for him.