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October 11, 2013 11:54 AM Entitlement Reform: Cui Bono?

By Ed Kilgore

On a theoretical level, the dispute between “Establishment” and “Tea Party” conservatives over the policy objective of fiscal hostage-taking is mostly strategic: the former want to open up a broad “entitlement reform” effort aimed at all the New Deal/Great Society programs, while the latter are focused on Obamacare, the latest—or in paranoid conservative minds, the “tipping point”—entitlement program.

But as Ron Brownstein points out today, there’s a non-strategic rationale for this difference of targets, too, particularly at the grass roots:

House GOP leaders flailing for an exit strategy this week are again suggesting broad negotiations that will constrain entitlement programs such as Medicare. But our latest polling shows older and downscale whites overwhelmingly resist changes in Medicare or Social Security, which they consider benefits they have earned—and pointedly distinguish from transfer programs.
Those findings suggest that the real fight under way isn’t primarily about the size of government but rather who benefits from it. The frenzied push from House Republicans to derail Obamacare, shelve immigration reform, and slash food stamps all point toward a steadily escalating confrontation between a Republican coalition revolving around older whites and a Democratic coalition anchored on the burgeoning population of younger nonwhites. Unless the former recognizes its self-interest in uplifting the latter—the future workforce that will fund entitlements for the elderly—even today’s titanic budget battle may be remembered as only an early skirmish in a generation-long siege between the brown and the gray.

This take, of course, is not new; Thomas Edsall wrote eloquently about the Tea Party Movement as representing a generational resource fight back in 2010. And it’s possible to overstate it, insofar as there has yet to be a notable intra-conservative backlash to Republican schemes to mess with Medicare and Social Security. But I’m glad to see a broader understanding of the fact that conservative seniors think of their Medicare and Social Security benefits as earned benefits that are fundamentally different from and threatened by “welfare” benefits like Medicaid and Obamacare. You can call them hypocrites all day long, but they just don’t see it that way.

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.

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