The Republican Party’s Geriatric Trap

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Photo: Bettmann/Corbis

There are many ways to think about the Republican Party's electoral predicament — in racial terms, in sectional terms, in ideological terms. One clarifying way to conceive the problem is in generational terms — a geriatric trap.

David Frum has an essay in Foreign Affairs laying out his view of how the Republican Party must change in order to regain parity at the national level. Frum’s core insight is that the Republican Party fell into a self-perpetuating cycle whereby its ideas attracted mainly old people, and old people in turn shaped its ideas, and so they wound up “reinventing themselves as defenders of the fiscal status quo for older Americans — and only older Americans.” Even while fighting a desperate rear-guard campaign to prevent, and then to destroy, universal health insurance, Republicans exempted all Americans over the age of 55 from any cuts to Social Security or Medicare. As a Fox News ratings gambit, this works splendidly. As both a long-term Republican political strategy and as a governing doctrine, it is a catastrophe.

If anything, Frum’s essay actually understates the party’s failure. It wasn’t merely that Republicans protected the elderly and near-elderly from the austerity of the Ryan budget. They savagely attacked the Medicare cuts enacted by the Obama administration. The hyperbolic version of this attack was “rationing”; the insane version was “death panels.” As Lamar Alexander memorably put it, while rising in opposition to universal health insurance, "If you find savings by cutting waste, fraud and abuse in Grandma’s Medicare, spend those savings on Grandma." They also repeatedly turned down opportunities to cut Social Security spending out of a combination of anti-tax absolutism and sheer partisan spite.

The GOP’s old-person problem is on inadvertent display in a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute. Biggs is professionally committed to cutting Social Security, and the column is devoted to the need to restore solvency to the Social Security Trust Fund, which certainly ought to be a conservative priority. Yet Biggs finds himself dancing awkwardly around the reality that Obama is the one who has proposed to do the thing he advocates, and Republicans are the ones who stopped him. His excruciating contortions highlight the impossible predicament faced by Republican entitlement hawks trying to defend the party line.

Was6799713 Photo: SAul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

After beginning with a harrowing description of Social Security’s long-term deficit, which is real, Biggs begins spraying blame at the Democratic Party. Here he is assailing Obama: “Yet apart from the administration's 2013 proposal to reduce cost of living adjustments — withdrawn under pressure from fellow Democrats — the White House has proposed nothing to put Social Security's finances back on track.” That two-word introduction — “Yet apart” — is a delectable piece of rhetorical obfuscation. Obama suggested nothing to help Social Security apart from that one time he did exactly that, when he proposed reducing Social Security’s cost-of-living index. (Even this absurd formulation is wrong: Biggs is ignoring the fact that Obama also proposed similar measures behind closed doors in 2011 and 2012, and was rebuked by Republicans every time.)

With faux generosity (“It's hard to blame the president alone for backtracking”), Biggs pivots from blaming Obama to blaming Democrats in Congress. He cites a plan to shore up Social Security by Representative John Larson. Biggs grudgingly concedes that Larson “at least attempts to balance the system's tax revenues and benefit outlays,” which is Biggs’s way of saying that, according to an independent analysis by the Social Security Administration, Larson’s plan restores complete solvency to the Trust Fund over 75 years. He proceeds to complain that Larson’s plan raises taxes too much.

At no point anywhere in his op-ed does Biggs mention Congressional Republicans, not to mention their repeated refusal to accept Obama’s deal that would have cut Social Security spending in return for closing tax deductions for the affluent. He is, of course, correct that many liberals opposed such a deal. But this merely illustrates how self-defeating it was for Republicans to spurn Obama’s deal. Cutting Social Security is extremely unpopular — as unpopular as just about any mainstream policy option. It is also essential to the conservative goal of restraining the size of government. Having a Democrat who is prepared to sign, and provide public cover to, Social Security cuts is an unbelievably fortunate opportunity for the right.

Here is another thing that makes the Republican spurning of Obama so mindless. Proposals to cut Social Security tend to phase in slowly over time, to insulate them from political backlash. As more and more Baby Boomers start receiving benefits, more and more benefits grow politically untouchable. And that means, as time goes on, a greater and greater share of the eventual solution to the Social Security funding gap will come from tax hikes — which are, in any case, more popular than benefit cuts.

The Republican Party constructed a geriatric trap for itself. Just how it will escape is hard to see. It is a small-government party whose base is wedded to the programs that constitute a large and growing share of government. The inability to touch the benefits of any old person, in combination with its still-extant support for defense and fanatical opposition to tax hikes in any form, have driven Republicans to propose massive cuts to the small share of government that benefits struggling workers. This priority has, in turn, saddled the GOP with the (correct) image of hostility toward the unfortunate.

Frum, interestingly, identifies another side effect of the geriatric trap: It infuses the party and its public spokesmen with mournful sensibility. “It is overwhelmingly tempting to people contemplating mortality,” he writes, “to infer that what holds true for them must also hold true for the nation.” Republicans may one day in the future look back with uncomprehending regret on their refusal to strike a fiscal deal with the rare figure who was eager to compromise with them and able to deliver liberal support. But a party fixated on visions of imminent mortality is not very suited to thinking about the future.