Washington Matters


Why Next Year's Elections Ride on This Week's Budget Action

David Morris

GOP gamble on Medicare, possible shutdown will shape outcome for Obama, lawmakers.



The outcome of the 2012 elections will be determined, in large part, by what is happening right now in Washington.

For starters, House Republicans today unveiled their version of the federal budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. They are making one very big bet that voters are so eager to reduce the deficit and cut government spending that they will accept massive changes in Medicare and Medicaid programs as necessary medicine.

The biggest gamble is on Medicare. There’s no doubt the program that provides health coverage for retirees is a huge drain on the nation’s finances and needs to be fixed sooner or later. But by taking a unilateral stab at fixing the entitlement program, Republicans had better be able to clearly explain what they want to do, why they’re doing it and what it will mean to Americans of all ages.

Changing Medicare from the current insurance system to one that gives seniors credits to choose from a menu of insurance options won’t kick in for another decade.

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But there is a much shorter timetable for the GOP to sell the plan to voters -- 17 months. That’s the time left before the next election. In that time, Republicans have to convince those at or close to retirement age that the changes won’t affect them. They also have to convince younger voters that the changes will be better for them in the long run and that they will able to afford the new coverage.

Of course, they won’t be making that sales pitch in a vacuum. You can bet Democrats will hammer away, trying to portray the Grand Old Party as guilty of protecting the wealthy by cutting the top individual and corporate tax rates to 25 percent while hurting the poor with changes in Medicaid and the food stamp program, and the elderly with the sweeping revamp of Medicare.

Facts, alas, aren’t central in such arguments. It’s all about perception. If Democrats convince voters that Republicans are out to dismantle Medicare and Medicaid, Obama and his fellow party members could have a big day in November 2012. If the GOP successfully sells the idea that it is taking the tough steps needed to save the country from being swallowed by debt -- and that even tougher steps will be needed later if nothing is done now -- Republicans will be poised to control both chambers in Congress and maybe send Obama packing after just one term.

It’s far too early to suggest how this might play out. But public opinion suggests the GOP’s all-in bet is risky. Yes, most Americans want to do something about the U.S. debt and ballooning federal spending. But strong majorities tell pollsters Congress shouldn’t make major changes in Medicare and Social Security, and nearly half say those changes shouldn’t be made at the expense of Medicaid programs for those with low incomes, either.

But the 2012 budget is just one reason this week will shape the outcome of the next elections. Both parties are still scrambling to find a way to fund the government for the rest of this fiscal year. They have until midnight Friday (April 8) to compromise or nonessential departments and programs will shut down until an agreement is reached.

The two sides are billions of dollars apart. Last week, with the parties talking, a deal seemed within reach. This week, with the parties yelling, the gap has become a canyon.

If there is a shutdown, it will be short and won’t affect most Americans who don’t live in Washington or work for the federal government. Essential services will continue and Social Security checks will be issued. Still, blame will be assigned, so both sides will be eager to portray themselves as eager to solve problems the other party created.

Yes, it’s a long journey from here to Election Day. But circle this week on your calendar. For one party, it will very likely mark the beginning of the end of their chances.



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