Ramesh Ponnuru is probably right that if Republicans follow one of their usual scripts — try to rein in entitlements, let the Democrats demagogue their proposals, and then lose — it will not redound to their benefit politically. But neither will the party benefit from following the most common Republican storyline of all: talking about limited government while ignoring the entitlements crisis and only going after government programs that cost relatively small amounts of money.
Whether President Obama is open to making a deal on entitlements or not, Republicans have to spend the next two years making their argument on entitlements: That we have made promises that we cannot afford to keep; that Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are going broke; that the middle-class entitlements are a lousy deal for younger taxpayers; and that it is ultimately deferring action that will endanger the benefits of current retirees. In other words, they have to make a concerted effort to rewrite the usual scripts on entitlements.
The electorate was more or less blindsided by past Republican attempts to deal with entitlements, even when — as was the case with George W. Bush’s proposal to reform Social Security — the rough contours of what a conservative reform would look like had been apparent for years. Yet Bush laid little to no groundwork for his Social Security plan during his first term. If Republicans don’t start making their case in a sustained way and thinking about ways to get reforms enacted, it really won’t matter very much for the country’s fiscal future whether the party wins elections or not.
UPDATE: Peter Suderman has more over at Reason.