Politics 101: Don't talk about offsets on the campaign trail

Expect the candidates to get looser and looser about the “fiscally responsible” pieces of their policy proposals. Expect them to spell out only the goodies, not how they would pay for the goodies.

By , Guest blogger

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    In this photo released by PictureGroup, host Jon Stewart and Republican presidential candidate, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, appear on set during Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" in September of 2011. Stewart's commentary on politics often cuts through the double-speak, as in the case of the dueling campaigns' medicare plans.
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The Daily Show segment and Ruth Marcus’ column in today’s Washington Post emphasize that, gee, the Romney-Ryan Medicare reform approach–no matter that the GOP team is still trying to define/refine it–is not that different from “Obamacare.”  As Ruth explains:

The Republican National Committee chairman says President Obama has “blood on [his] hands” for cutting Medicare. Mitt Romney blasts the president for having “robbed” the program of $700 billion.

Vice President Biden accuses Romney and running mate Paul Ryan of “gutting” Medicare. And, inevitably, President Obama warned that Romney-Ryan would “end Medicare as we know it.”

Aren’t you glad we’re having a sober policy discussion about how to rein in entitlement spending?

Such hyperbole was inevitable. The laws of political gravity drag every debate from the lofty realm of ideas to the grungy plain of invective. The more complex and weighty the issue, the more it is at risk of being distilled — distorted — into a 30-second caricature.

Let’s pause for a bit of fact-checking.

The cheeky response to the critique of Obama’s Medicare cuts is that Ryan assumes those very cuts in his budget — the one passed by the House and endorsed as “marvelous” by Romney. So there are robbers galore and blood to spread around.

The slightly less cheeky response is to say: Aren’t these the people who have been screaming about Medicare bankrupting the country? Shouldn’t they be praising cuts, not denouncing them?

The on-the-merits response is that the cuts — more accurately, reductions in the rate of growth — involve lower reimbursements to hospitals and nursing homes, reduced payments to insurers, higher premiums for better-off beneficiaries, and savings from reforms such as lower hospital readmissions.

In other words, Grandma might lose her free eyeglasses, but her basic benefits remain untouched.

So what are the candidates blaming each other about?  In essence, it’s the exact same part of their largely-the-same overall proposals: the part that saves money. The Democrats demonstrate this by showing Grandma being pushed off a cliff by the Republicans.  The Republicans characterize this as the Democrats throwing the $700 billion off the cliff–”robbing” it from the Medicare program (and the very same Grandma!) and “wasting” that money.

It’s part 2 of “don’t talk about saving money” lesson on the campaign trail–part 1 being the lesson I’m afraid Romney got on his tax reform approach once the implied details of a base-broadening offset were spelled out by the Tax Policy Center.  My point on that lesson (summarized best in my Concord version of the blog post) was that the lesson for Romney should have been for him to pare back his tax-cutting plans and make any offsets more progressive–rather than for him to rethink paying for the policy at all.

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But any policy talk that honors the inevitable budget constraints–that there’s no such thing as a free tax cut or spending program–paints an easy target for a candidate.  The offset or “pay for” always involves a spending cut or a revenue (tax) increase, at least relative to a not-paid-for baseline, and instead of leading to a healthy debate about the different ways to reform our tax and spending programs in fiscally responsible ways, it leads to attacks on the other side for even suggesting their version of the “fiscally responsible” part–no matter how similar it actually is to one’s own fiscally responsible part!

This is how it’s going to go through the November election.  Expect the candidates to get looser and looser about the “fiscally responsible” pieces of their policy proposals. Expect them to spell out only the goodies, not how they would pay for the goodies.  For voters to be able to see past the rhetoric and understand the real substance of the differences between the two presidential candidates’ policy positions, we’re going to need constant translations from people like Ruth and Jon Stewart, I guess.

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