04.19.11

The GOP's Budget Backfire

Not only are Republicans wasting time with the Paul Ryan proposal, their cynical gambit on the even more drastic House Republican Study Committee came back to bite them. They may be under pressure to keep campaign promises about balancing the budget—but they're running a huge risk of electoral disaster with their overreach.

While Republicans are chiding President Obama for lacking leadership, they are wasting precious time pushing an agenda to nowhere.

On Friday, we were forced to endure a day of debate on the Paul Ryan budget, which everyone knows is dead on arrival in the Senate. The centerpiece of the congressman's grand plan—turning Medicare into a voucher program—is opposed by the majority of the population. He offers more tax cuts for the wealthy despite the public's overwhelming support for taxing the rich.

What gives?

According to some Republican strategists and commentators, the GOP is terrified of a backlash from its base if its members don't deliver on their ambitious campaign promises. Former White House press secretary Dana Perino told me: "The message the GOP [voters]—including the Tea Party—sent to the Republicans was that inaction was probably more politically risky than proposing something that might make some people uncomfortable."

Says one senior Republican strategist, "There is a new level of accountability with the party's base that is going to hold them to reform. People are cognizant of the political risks. They will tell you they see the polls; many voters in the electorate are reflecting unease about doing something with Medicare. But risk of not acting and not doing big things is even bigger."

If this is true, Republicans had better pray that their base doesn't hear about the House gambit on Friday, when lawmakers pretended to support the House Republican Study Committee budget, which would balance the budget through even more drastic cuts than are found in the Ryan plan.

Please don't make us listen to the people who kept two wars off the books to make spending look lower than it was lecture us about fiscal responsibility.

House Republicans brought it up for a vote expecting Democrats to oppose the plan. But the Dems had a little surprise for them: They organized to vote "present," and suddenly it looked like the RSC budget would pass.

Pandemonium ensued as the Republicans panicked. At the last minute, the GOP leadership forced a handful of Republican members to switch their votes to "no" and disaster was averted. It was all an elaborate exercise in political cynicism.

I find the RSC budget draconian and counterproductive, but the difference between the House Republicans and me is I won't lie to you and tell you that I support it just to get credit for doing something I never wanted to happen.

President Obama alluded to this point in what he thought were off-the-record comments to supporters last Thursday night: "When Paul Ryan says his priority is to make sure he's just being America's accountant, that he's being responsible, I mean, this is the same guy that voted for two wars that were unpaid for, voted for the Bush tax cuts that were unpaid for, voted for the prescription drug bill that cost as much as my health-care bill—but wasn't paid for. So it's not on the level."

Republicans have been whining about what a big meanie Obama is for stating the obvious: Washington Republicans only became obsessed with cutting the deficit when Democrats came to power and it was time to clean up the spending mess created during the Bush years. I make the distinction "Washington" Republicans, because many Republicans outside the capital were disgusted by the spending done on the GOP's watch; they have the moral authority to complain now. But please don't make us listen to the people who kept two wars off the books to make spending look lower than it was lecture us about fiscal responsibility.

This approach is likely to be politically disastrous for Republicans. What the public has said over and over to the GOP about more tax cuts for the rich is a firm "no thanks." In a recent Gallup poll, 60 percent of independents said that the next budget should include raising taxes on those making more than $250,000. As for revamping Medicare, this is an across-the-board stinker. Gallup found that "support for revamping Medicare is essentially no higher among Republicans than among Democrats, 34 percent vs. 30 percent."

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel is licking his chops over the prospect of making the GOP pay for its overreach. He told The Washington Post's Greg Sargent on Friday, "When we win back the majority, people will look back at this vote [for the Ryan plan] as a defining one that secured the majority for Democrats."

A Republican strategist conceded to me, "There is a lot of truth to the argument that this is a big risk for Republicans. Everyone here sees Steve Israel's comments… But Republicans on the Hill are under pressure to do big things."

Yet even the pugnacious Newt Gingrich told The New York Times that Ryan's plans to overhaul Medicare is "a dangerous political exercise."

When Newt Gingrich is urging caution, you know you are on thin ice.

Kirsten Powers is a columnist for The Daily Beast. She is also a political analyst on Fox News and a writer for the New York Post. She served in the Clinton administration from 1993-1998 and has worked in New York state and city politics. Her writing has been published in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The New York Observer, Salon.com, Elle, and American Prospect online.