The Real End Game: Entitlements

The GOP's real target is entitlements, and the chance of agreement on that is zero.

Moving beyond the question of who is to blame for sequestration, the arguably more compelling question of the moment is, so what are we going to do about it right now? Congress' choice, leave town for the week, isn't exactly indicative of any seriousness on their part.

Maybe they'll negotiate next week, but there's nothing to negotiate about, really. This whole thing actually comes down to entitlments. Republicans want to force a situation where deep entitlement cuts are made, and Democrats want to resist that. John Boehner said as much, basically, in his weird WSJ op-ed yesterday, if you know how to read these things:

Washington must get serious about its spending problem. If it can't reform America's safety net and retirement-security programs, they will no longer be there for those who rely on them. Republicans' willingness to do what is necessary to save these programs is well-known. But after four years, we haven't seen the same type of courage from the president.

Yes, their willingness is indeed "well-known," I can't quibble with that. It's also quite unpopular. But that's what the Republicans really want to force here--a Ryanesque rewrite of the Medicare and Social Security systems. And no, the alternative is not doing absolutely nothing about their costs--Obama put chained CPI on the table, and he'd do so again. The alternative is a non-Ryanesque rewrite of the way they're funded and the way benefits are paid out, but that isn't remotely on the table.

The Democrats are partly to blame for that, no doubt. Obama's critics who say he ought to be more forthright about the long-term entitlement question are right. He should give a major Oval Office address and put both the funding and the spending questions before the American people and see what they think. I bet people's instincts would be reasonably progressive.

For example, I can't imagine more than 10 percent of the population actually knows that payroll taxes end at around $113,000 a year. Would a majority support raising the cap? I feel fairly confident that a majority would be open to such an idea, especially if combined with some prudent action on the cut side. Obama could set the terms of the debate substantively--opening up the conversation about funding, which we are resolutely not having--and it would be smart politically.

The Republican long game here is entitlements. If they manage to get through this sequester without being politically harmed, then they'll start circling entitlement spending. And if they are harmed politically, then maybe Obama will be in a stronger position to cut a larger deal, although as long as the House Republicans exist in these coccoon-like districts where their only pressure is from the right, they have no serious incentive to bargain.

In other words: We're stuck. There's more Obama could be doing. But the bottom line is that he doesn't have a serious negotiating partner here.