Charles Krauthammer

The way out of this mess? Curbing entitlements

Updated: 2013-10-16T00:23:39Z

By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER

The Washington Post

For all the hyped indignation over GOP “anarchism,” there has been remarkable media reticence about President Barack Obama’s intransigence. He has refused to negotiate anything unless the Republicans fully fund the government and raise the debt ceiling — unconditionally.

For all his protestations about protecting the full faith and credit of the United States — jittery markets are showing that his brinkmanship could have precisely the opposite effect — the president’s real intent is to score a humiliating victory over the GOP.

So far, so good. Republicans have fallen to 28 percent approval, the lowest level ever for either party in 21 years of polling and a staggering 10-point drop in the last month. Democrats have also declined, but only four points and, in the end, partisan politics is a zero-sum game. If you lose less than the other guy, you win — because every seat in Congress will be allocated to one party or the other, no matter how disgusted the country is with both.

To be sure, the administration has, as always, overplayed a good hand, with punitive shutdowns clearly intended to be blamed on the GOP.

People aren’t that stupid. They know a gratuitous abuse of government (lockout) power when they see it. Moreover, Republicans have been passing partial funding bills for such things as national monuments and cancer research, forcing Harry Reid’s Democratic Senate to kill them with a stone cold heart.

Even worse for Democrats, their current partisan advantage is a wasting asset. The rule is simple: shutdown good, debt ceiling bad. Every day the debt ceiling approaches, Obama’s leverage diminishes.

Moreover, should Obama miscalculate the brinkmanship, he’ll become the first president to ever allow a default. Precisely opposite to the principle he pretends to be espousing. Breaching the debt ceiling would indeed, as he claims, be an economic disaster, aborting an already historically anemic recovery. As president, he would take the blame. He can’t allow it. It’s a bluff. He will blink.

That’s why, as the debt ceiling approaches, the initiative will increasingly swing to House Speaker John Boehner. The real question is: What will Boehner do with it?

His answer thus far has been peculiar: He simply wants the president to sit down and negotiate.

Stranger still. You cannot negotiate if you don’t know what you want. The Republicans need to present a simple, broadly popular set of demands to attach to the debt ceiling. The president will deal. In his press conference last week, he’d already abandoned his original ultimatum of give me a long-term extension or I don’t budge. Now it’s: Give me an extension of any length and I’ll come to the table.

On Thursday, Boehner took that exit ramp, offering Obama a six-week debt-ceiling extension during which negotiations would be conducted. Unless Obama reverses himself and refuses, his “no negotiations” posture evaporates.

What, then, to ask for? Paul Ryan, as usual, points the way with a suggestion that would turn the partial and imperfect success of the last debt-ceiling fight into the larger success of curbing entitlements, which is where the real money is.

After all, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other health programs (plus interest payments) already claim more than half the federal budget. And they are poised to explode, eating up (estimates the Congressional Budget Office) 97 percent of revenues within 25 years.

Raising (and indexing) the retirement age while changing the inflation measure for entitlements would alone be major achievements. Democrats could be offered relief on the sequester — which everyone agrees needs restructuring anyway, since it cuts agency budgets indiscriminately, often illogically, by formula.

It’s win-win. A serious attack on the deficit — good. Refiguring sequestration to restore some defense spending and some logic to discretionary spending — also good. Forcing the president off Mount Olympus — priceless.

To reach Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, send email to letters@charleskrauthammer.com.

Deal Saver Subscribe today!

Comments

The Kansas City Star is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Kansas City Star uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here