Conservatives to Obama: Spend More!

Why do Republicans keep attacking Obama for trying to save money? Peter Beinart explains.

Washington Republicans believe passionately in deficit reduction, except in two circumstances: when they’re in power and when Democrats are.

During the George W. Bush years, Dick Cheney famously said that “deficits don’t matter.” And by their actions, many prominent Republicans sent exactly the same message. Between 2001 and 2008, even anti-debt crusaders like Paul Ryan voted for three tax cuts and two wars that, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, will add $6 trillion to the national debt by 2019. They also supported the costliest new Medicare plan ever and a highway bill that included the infamously wasteful Bridge to Nowhere.

Since President Obama took office, the GOP’s rhetoric has radically changed. Most Washington Republicans still don’t believe enough in deficit reduction to want to cut the Pentagon or raise taxes, but when it comes to domestic spending, the Republican Party has begun breathing fire. Some Republicans have even chastised their own party for being too free spending during the Bush years.

All of which makes the GOP’s reaction to Obama’s recent budget so intriguing. Some Republican leaders have criticized the president for not cutting entitlement spending enough. But Oregon Congressman Greg Walden, who just happens to lead the GOP’s campaign to retain the House in 2014, has said exactly the opposite, calling Obama’s cuts to Social Security cost-of-living adjustments “a shocking attack on seniors” and adding that Obama is “trying to balance this budget on the backs of seniors.”

We’ve seen this kind of thing before. During the health-care battle, Republicans regularly insisted that Obamacare would send health-care spending skyrocketing. But perhaps the most effective single attack on Obama’s plan, popularized by Sarah Palin, was that in order to cut health-care spending, Obama would create “death panels” that pressured families into euthanizing their elderly parents or disabled kids. While other Republicans were slamming Obama for increasing health-care costs, in other words, right-wing populists like Palin were denouncing him for reducing them. Something similar happened when Paul Ryan became Mitt Romney’s running mate. As a member of Congress, Ryan had proposed turning Medicare’s guaranteed benefit into a voucher in order to dramatically cut spending on the program. But after joining the Romney ticket, Ryan began accusing Obama of “raiding” $716 billion from Medicare to pay for Obamacare (even though Ryan’s own budget had proposed the exact same cut). Once again, Republicans who had spent the Obama years attacking Democrats for not cutting federal domestic spending enough were suddenly attacking them for cutting it too much.

I don’t think Republicans are lying when they say they want to cut domestic spending. Many of them really do. Their problem, as the 2012 election revealed, is that Medicare and Social Security cuts are deeply unpopular, especially when championed by a party that many Americans consider an agent of the rich. As recent polling shows, Americans are much happier to cut defense, something Republicans generally oppose, than to cut “entitlements.” They’re also more willing to cut programs for the poor, like food stamps, but there’s not much money there. So while many Republicans really do want big cuts in domestic spending, they also want to keep their jobs. And in the heat of a political campaign, when Republicans look defeat in the face, political survival often trumps ideological consistency, and they begin scrambling for a way to claim that it’s actually Democrats who want to savage Medicare and Social Security, not them.

Right now some Republicans are calling Greg Walden a traitor for opposing Obama’s Social Security cuts. The right-wing Club for Growth is even pledging to run a primary challenger against him. But don’t count Walden out. His position may be incoherent and hypocritical, but he’s acknowledging something that many other Washington Republicans still won’t: their attack on middle-class spending is a political disaster. I suspect a lot of GOP candidates will come to that realization between now and November 2014. Or else, a lot of GOP candidates will lose.