'Fiscal cliff': Is John Boehner in a lose-lose situation?

Speaker John Boehner and fellow Republicans are being asked to cave on tax rates in the fiscal cliff negotiations. In return, they could be the 'bad guys' on entitlement reform – something even their own voters may not support.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio gestures during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012, where he accused President Barack Obama of not being serious about cutting government spending.

What do Republicans want?

As the two parties continue to complain about a lack of progress in the "fiscal cliff" negotiations, the GOP’s maneuvering has been complicated in part by a lack of clarity over what kind of deal its own base would really support.

In theory, of course, Republicans want big spending cuts. Speaker John Boehner is resisting President Obama’s call for higher tax rates unless he can get assurances of meaningful spending reductions – which means, first and foremost, changes to the entitlement programs that most independent analysts agree are posing the biggest threat to America’s long-term fiscal health.

But cutting entitlements is certain to be politically painful, and Republican lawmakers understandably appear reluctant to be seen as “owning” those changes. Particularly when recent polling suggests that even many Republican voters wouldn’t support them.

As Reason’s Peter Suderman pointed out this week, a new poll by McClatchy/Marist found that nearly every proposed entitlement reform is strongly opposed by a majority of voters – including a majority of Republicans.

Cutting spending for Medicare? Seventy-four percent of voters said no way, including 68 percent of Republicans. How about raising the eligibility age for Medicare? Nope, 59 percent of voters – and 56 percent of Republicans – don’t like that idea, either.

Even the GOP’s preferred means of raising taxes – by eliminating deductions rather than raising rates – appears at least somewhat problematic with its base. When asked if they’d support eliminating the home-mortgage deduction, 66 percent of Republicans said no.

Mr. Suderman concluded: “[T]he unwillingness to face up to our actual long-term budgetary challenges explains a lot about why the GOP’s last presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, talked a big game about cutting deficits and reducing the debt, but when asked for specifics focused heavily on small-ball spending cuts. It also helps explain why Republicans now are so often wary of talking about overhauling the entitlement system. And it also speaks to a larger confusion within the party about what government should do and be: In theory, the GOP is the party of small government. But polls like this one suggest that it’s really the party of the status quo.”

Now, other polls have painted a somewhat different picture. A Fox News poll also out this week found that 59 percent of Republicans say they'd favor "major spending cuts" in general. It also found that 62 percent of Republicans would favor "reforming Social Security to reduce future costs" (though we'd note that "reforming" sounds a lot friendlier than "cutting benefits"). Sixty percent of Republicans in that poll said they'd favor raising the eligibility age for Medicare. 

Still, the murkiness as to what Republican voters really want – the fact that the party seems to want "cuts" but is less happy about the specific cuts under consideration, particularly to entitlements – helps explain the excruciating position that Speaker Boehner and his party are in right now. They’re essentially being asked to give in on one of their most strongly held positions, the need to keep tax rates low. And in return, they may get to be the bad guys on Medicare and Social Security!

That alone could relegate the party to minority status for decades to come. It’s easy to see how Boehner may eventually conclude that going over the fiscal cliff is a better option.

In reality, both parties know that entitlement reform is going to be necessary. But for it to happen, it’s going to take a lot more public education than we’ve seen so far. And it’s going require that both sides step up and agree to share the blame.  

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