Political Animal


February 22, 2013 4:59 PM Reminder: To Conservatives, It’s Not Just About the Money

By Ed Kilgore

As every fiscal dispute between the two parties—and blame for the impasse—is relitigated in the days before the sequester hits, there’s a misunderstanding to which many progressives continue to fall prey. It’s that since the president has put “entitlement reform” on the table as a theoretical bargaining chip he’s willing to exchange for significant new revenues, then the problem is that conservatives aren’t actually willing to go along with any additional revenues for anything.

The problem here isn’t so much that conservatives value “entitlement reform” less than they claim (vis a vis holding the line on taxes for the wealthy): it’s that conservatives only consider major benefit cuts and structural changes in Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security “entitlement reform.” When the administration talks about major long-term reductions in Medicare and Medicaid spending via major government-driven changes in how health care is delivered and how much is paid, conservatives go “la-la-la-la can’t hear you.”

For some perhaps that’s because they don’t believe government can actually execute cost containment via its purchasing power without major reductions in the quality of care. But for others it’s because the point isn’t to save money, it’s to shrink government, and the “immoral” dependence on it that middle-class entitlements symbolize.

There’s an interesting middle ground of proposals that cut benefits but don’t change the basic structure of the entitlements. They include ideas like “chained CPI,” adjustments in the retirement age, and greater means-testing that the president has hinted he might accept in a really “grand” bargain. I get the impression conservatives are a bit conflicted on the value of these kind of benefit cuts: they’re not the sort of root-and-branch change or wholesale privatization they want, but have the value of “breaking the seal” on entitlement reform and giving bipartisan cover to much more radical proposals from the Right.

The bottom line, though, is that your average conservative is as focused on breaking down the New Deal/Great Society safety net as your average progressive is in maintaining it more or less exactly as it is. In this struggle, money is a talking point, but not the actual center of the argument.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • martin on February 22, 2013 5:22 PM:

    The first step in entitlement reform is to refer to (at least Medicare and Social Security) as what they really are: Earned Benefits.

    Next step is raising the cap.

    Once the Repubs have agreed to raising the Cap, then we can talk about means testing and CPI and all of their favorite gimmicks.

  • Citizen Alan on February 22, 2013 6:26 PM:

    In other words, it's sadism masquerading as public policy. It's the idea that it is better for the most vulnerable people -- children, the elderly, the disabled -- to suffer and die if the only thing that can save them is "that ole debbil Socialism!" And any second now, that disgusting sack of human feces named Shooter will be along to make excuses for the psychopaths of the GOP.

  • Doug on February 22, 2013 6:52 PM:

    I'd say the President has illuminated just what the ultimate goal of today's "conservatives" are re SS/Medicare rather well. He's risked angering a goodly portion of his base by even mentioning various changes to SS or Medicare, supposedly in search of a "Grand Bargain" yet, strangely enough, nothing the President has offered has been met with any sign of interest on the part of the Republicans! It's almost as if they don't WANT changes to ensure the viability of these programs, while fearing to clearly state their goals.
    Democrats, well most of 'em, liberals and progressives already knew what Republicans goals are. Did the "average" voter? Not so much.
    Well, now they do.

  • janinsanfran on February 22, 2013 8:42 PM:

    Hey -- some of us liberals aren't just focused on maintaining the safety net "as it is." We think it should be extended. Want to save money on health care? Put us all on Medicare and pay doctors, hospitals -- even drug companies and "device" makers -- at Medicare rates.

    Why if we did that, we wouldn't even have to raise taxes on these greedy bums that make more than $1 million.

  • Marc on February 22, 2013 10:24 PM:

    Repeat after me, Repubs hate Medicare, Medicaid and most of all Social Security. All they want to do is to kill them, period.

  • S.W. Anderson on February 23, 2013 2:04 AM:

    Oh, with conservatives/Republicans it certainly is about the money, in the sense they want trillions of windfall dollars flowing to the financial industry, other corporations and wealthy investors who fund their campaigns, PACs and the right-wing noise machine.

    Destroying safety-net programs and leaving the bottom 95 percent ever more at the mercy of Wall Street and the greater financial industry will ensure the windfalls. And, in turn, it will ensure ever more money for conservative ancillary organizations and Republican politicians.