Political Animal


May 23, 2011 10:00 AM What GOP leaders were thinking on Medicare

By Steve Benen

A couple of weeks ago, when the House Republican plan to scrap Medicare was imploding, Atrios asked a good question: “What were they thinking?”

The answer was far from obvious. GOP leaders had to know the seriousness of the risk, and realize Democrats would never give in on such an idea. So why force their own caucus to put their careers and majority on the line for an agenda that was bound to fail anyway?

Among the possibilities was the notion that Republicans are so stuck in epistemic closure that they thought their plan would be popular. As it turns out, that’s not it.

It might be a political time bomb — that’s what GOP pollsters warned as House Republicans prepared for the April 15 vote on Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposed budget, with its plan to dramatically remake Medicare.

No matter how favorably pollsters with the Tarrance Group or other firms spun the bill in their pitch — casting it as the only path to saving the beloved health entitlement for seniors — the Ryan budget’s approval rating barely budged above the high-30s or its disapproval below 50 percent, according to a Republican operative familiar with the presentation.

The poll numbers on the plan were so toxic — nearly as bad as those of President Barack Obama’s health reform bill at the nadir of its unpopularity — that staffers with the National Republican Congressional Committee warned leadership, “You might not want to go there” in a series of tense pre-vote meetings.

OK, so epistemic closure wasn’t to blame. Republicans knew they were inviting a political disaster, but they jumped off the cliff anyway.

So what were they thinking? The report from Glenn Thrush and Jake Sherman notes that some prominent House Republicans argued against the radical agenda, but those voices were overruled.

According to a top GOP consultant involved in the debate, Republican leaders, including Speaker John Boehner, ultimately concluded they had to be “true to the people who put us here” — and that meant giving the right-wing base something they, and only they, would like.

The report added, “Republican sources said Boehner, who has struggled to control his rambunctious new majority, needed to send a message to conservative upstarts that he was serious about bold fiscal reform — especially after some of the 63 freshmen rebelled against his 2011 budget deal that averted a government shutdown.” The Speaker also came to believe he lacked the political clout with his own caucus to derail the plan, even if he wanted to, so he got on board.

What a fiasco. The party backed a wildly-unpopular plan, reinvigorated Democrats, and the right-wing base isn’t especially impressed anyway. All the GOP has to look forward to are attack ads and severe electoral setbacks.

Postscript: It’s worth noting that the Politico article reports, simply as a matter of fact, that the House Republican leaders intended to “boldly position their party as a beacon of fiscal responsibility.” What the article doesn’t note is that this is absurd — there’s nothing fiscally responsible about the House GOP plan. The numbers don’t add up; the finances are fraudulent; and even the Medicare “savings” would be applied to tax cuts, not deficit reduction. The media really needs to start understanding this.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • foosion on May 23, 2011 10:18 AM:

    The GOP is playing a long game. They well know that today's crazy is tomorrow's mainstream.

    Current GOP officeholders will be paid off with jobs in consulting, thinktanks, etc. Their corporate masters will have nudged the agenda another step in their preferred direction.

  • berttheclock on May 23, 2011 10:26 AM:

    "What were they thinking"

    The morning after Ryan's plan was announced, Mourning Joe, his staff and Mark Halperin of Time were calling it "courageous". David Brooks followed with such a line. So, what were they thinking, as well?

  • hell's littlest angel on May 23, 2011 10:26 AM:

    Republicans seem unable to think beyond their own immediate, short-term advantage. They make heroes out of fools like Beck, Limbaugh, Ryan, et al, when those fools generate excitement in the media. They latch onto, and discard, buzzwords and intellectual ephemera recklessly, always chasing whatever they believe will put a nickel in their coffers right now. They have taken the drivers of the 24-hour news cycle and applied it to policy.
    What surprises me is how long they having been gulping down poison without keeling over dead.

  • June on May 23, 2011 10:28 AM:

    Another thing I'd love to see the media start asking Republicans is, "How do Republicans claim ANY credibility on fiscal responsibility when the first thing the GOP did after the mid-terms was refuse to address any of the country's pressing problems unless the GOP's demand to continue Bush's unfunded tax cuts (therefore INCREASING the deficit) was met?"

  • JD on May 23, 2011 10:33 AM:

    This couldn't happen to a nicer bunch of guys. I'm immensely enjoying this ongoing entertainment.

  • c u n d gulag on May 23, 2011 10:33 AM:

    Yup, they went over that ' bridge too far' to throw a bone at their base of idiots.

    They know they don't have a lot of time left, due to the demographics, to inflict as much change to the hard right as they can, as fast as possible.

    Privatizing Ryan's plan was their "Hail Mary!" And, looking at the initial pun-twit reaction, you'd have thought it was a touchdown.
    Only upon further reflection did it turn out to be a turnover to the Democrats.

    Now, let's see what the cowardly Democrats do with the ball.
    My money's on 'punt...'
    No, make that 'fumble.'

  • chi res on May 23, 2011 10:39 AM:

    Never look a gift horse (nor an idiot opposition party Speaker) in the mouth.

  • berttheclock on May 23, 2011 10:44 AM:

    "a bridge too far"

    Yes, cundy, one would have thought their intelligence would have been better. Just pity those few Ryan's Rangers paratroopers who were floating downward during the initial phases of "Operation Medicare Garden", not knowing the 9th Gray Panthers Panzer Division was hidden in the woods below.

  • MattF on May 23, 2011 10:49 AM:

    I can believe that "the numbers don't add up" is not the sort of thing that followers of Limbaugh, Palin, and Beck want to hear. Clearly, if you can't make them add up, then you're not brave or serious, or, heaven help us, conservative.

  • stormskies on May 23, 2011 10:54 AM:

    berttheclock got this exactly right of course... the repiglicans were counting on the corporate media to deceive and lie for them yet again ... witness the below ... from David "I am not a corporate cum slut" Gregory ..


    this is from crooks and liars ..........

    David Gregory Shows That He Has His Finger On The Pulse--Of The Republican Party Agenda
    By Nicole Belle

    In this web-only exclusive from David Gregory (complete with butler serving food in the background), we can see that Gregory clearly has his finger on the pulse not of the concerns of Americans, but of the Republican agenda.

    It's all in the framing. Pointing out that Ryan is standing firm with his budget is not all that admirable, especially when Mitch McConnell refuses to whip his party for support of the budget, congressman are being confronted by town hall participants demanding that the Republicans leave Medicare the hell alone and individual Republicans back away from the plan. So what we have is not an instance of political courage, but of willful ignorance.

    With unemployment high, one in seven Americans receiving food stamps, is it political courage for Ryan to try to strip even more of the safety net away from Americans? Does his plan actually do anything that he claims (address the deficit, give seniors more choice, and put us on the right fiscal trajectory)? No and hell no.

    What Americans want right now is JOBS, by more than a two to one margin. Americans don't think the very wealthy need more tax cuts. And by the way, the Democrats do have a plan, not that you'd know it from listening to Ryan or his enabling mouthpiece in Gregory.

    So why, David Gregory, is the Ryan budget the defining issue of this election? Seems to me that the defining issue of this election is how much attention the Republicans will give the real concerns of American voters.

    But David Gregory has never met a Republican meme he didn't like. Look how he frames Obama's speech at AIPAC today and wondering if he'll get a "rough ride" there and if his position on the Middle East peace process will "hurt" him. Never mind that Obama has said nothing ostensibly different than previous presidents, nor will anything he says have as much effect as the immediate players in the peace deal, so why does Gregory frame it as assuming failure and/or political cost? Could it be because that's what his buddies in the GOP are doing?

  • wonkie on May 23, 2011 10:54 AM:

    Republicans have NEVER been fiscal conservatives. They just say they are and the media obediently repeats their claims and the Democratic politicians concede the label to them.

    It's their fucking deficit that they claim is so terrible that all of us not-rich people should have to suffer to pay off.

    AS for why are they setting themselves up for a temporary loss by pushing the Ryan budget? Well Republican politicians come in basically two types: the profoundly stupid and the sociopaths. The sociopaths care about serving the rich and the corporations but only secondarily; mostly they serve themselves. So Boner has made a decisions calculated to keep HIM in office even if that means that the high tide that washed a bunch of crazy stupid rightwingers into COgress tursw inot a DEmocratic tidal wave that washes them back out. After all a Democratic wave wo't hurt Boner and the remaining Republicans i the House will be easier for him to handle. So my theory is that he knows that the Ryan plan is suicide for many Republican politricians but he doens't care any more about them than he does about us.

  • Joe Friday on May 23, 2011 10:55 AM:

    That weasel Andrew Ross Sorkin was on 'Meet the Republicans' yesterday, fawning all over Ryan and his plan to eliminate Medicare. He called Ryan "brave" and his plan "courageous".

    He even claimed he received an e-mail during the program from "someone on Wall Street" who stated that at least the Republicans have proposed a plan.

    Great. I propose we enact a transaction tax on all Wall Street trades and tax hedge funds with a 50% tax rate instead of a 15% tax rate.

    OK Andy, THERE'S a proposed plan for ya.

  • c u n d gulag on May 23, 2011 10:56 AM:


    Also, too - 9th Gray Panthers Motorized Medicare Scooter Panzer Division was hidden in the woods below.

  • Doctor Biobrain on May 23, 2011 11:01 AM:

    "The GOP is playing a long game. They well know that today's crazy is tomorrow's mainstream."

    Yes, we're all doomed, and their mechanizations make Obama's thirty-dimensional chess game look like tic-tac-toe. What's next? Will you tell us how this was good for John McCain?

    Jesus christ, why is it that some liberals just can't take "win" for an answer?

  • Jon on May 23, 2011 11:22 AM:

    In other words, the lunatics are running the asylum.

  • chi res on May 23, 2011 12:18 PM:

    Jesus christ, why is it that some liberals just can't take "win" for an answer?

    Ooh! Ooh! I know! Choose me!

    "Because then their whiny fundraising emails don't sound nearly whiny enough."

  • slappy magoo on May 23, 2011 1:17 PM:

    @Doctor Biobrian, truth be told my thinking's in line with @foosion's position as well. I think the GOP more or less conceded Obama winning 2012 even before the slaying of bin Laden. Now it's just a matter of picking out a sacrifical lamb. But once 2013 rolls around, they still plan on being the party of no, the party of obstructionism, the party of painting the Dems as a party of The Enemy That Hates America, even as Obama endorses policies that were Republican policies pre-Inauguration Day 2009. While Ryan's Medicare plan seems like a debacle, I think the current long-term plan is to make the lives of every American so miserable while taunting us that things would have been better had we only trusted them, a couple more years of the media telling us how bold and courageous and NECESSARY it will be to privatize and voucherize Medicare...

    I'm not saying it's a good plan. I'm saying I think it's the Republican plan. Make their fiscal insanity the new normal. It worked for health care reform, attacking it and blocking it and demonizing it. Of course, Obama's instant capitulation on single-payer and his inevitable capitulation on public option didn't help, but we've now reached the point where Obamacare = Romneycare and it's still demonized in the GOP and still struggle to get widespread popularity with American voters. Though the current MediScare fiasco doesn't necessarily help the GOP going forward, I think that's where their head's at, and it's in keeping with the current terrorist mentality of the GOP: Make everyone suffer until they get what they want, and then everyone suffers because they got what they want.

    This it not Thirty-dimensional chess Deluxe. This is Mencken deluxe. Fooling enough of the people enough of the time that you eventually get what you want. If they've already written off the White House in 2012, chaos and economic uncertainty followed by Congressional victories either in elections or in bills is a concession they'll happily accept.

    What I'd love to see but suspect I never will is someone in the Democratic Party to pitch the idea of getting back their supermajority in the Senate and winning back the House, with true Democrats who will work with the President. To preach that true change will not come until the Republicans are in a position where they can do no damage. And hammer that point continuously until Election Day '12. Maybe then we'll see some real change, AND some change in the GOP battle plan.

  • Burr Deming on May 23, 2011 1:17 PM:

    "even the Medicare 'savings' would be applied to tax cuts, not deficit reduction."

    Thank you for that.

    The only debt reduction in the GOP plan comes from anticipated savings from the success of President Obama's withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.

  • Ersatz O'Donnell on May 23, 2011 1:26 PM:

    "The media really needs to start understanding this."

    Um, no, sorry, Steve. The "media" only understands popularity.

    'Popularity' is measured either in pageviews, Nielsen ratings, and advertising dollars; or to choice placement at tables of the powerful.

    There isn't a Villager pundit who wouldn't happily gush bull**** about The Courageous Ryan Plan if it meant they got to hang out with The Guys at the Club for Growth's tony bbq.

  • Vince on May 23, 2011 1:34 PM:

    "...true to the people who put us here." Well, at least, Democrats will never have to worry about their elected politicians doing that. God forbid our politicians actually do what we elected them to do. That would be a travesty.

    Now, if only the party without a crazy constituency would do what the people put them there to do.

  • Marc on May 23, 2011 2:06 PM:

    The war on the poor continues apace.

    I can only appreciate the comment above that suggests that the repubs are giving up on the White House in 2012 to keep control of Congress where they seem to be able to do much mischief.

    Now of course that might change if Newt can convince voters of 3 things - he has no past, he is a Washington Outsider, and he believes in Family Values.

  • toowearyforoutrage on May 23, 2011 2:10 PM:

    Speaker John Boehner, ultimately concluded they had to be “true to the people who put us here” — and that meant giving the right-wing base something they, and only they, would like.

    I think the Republican consultant assumes too much when he says Boehner was referring to voters.

    Privatizing and underfunding seniors' medical care helps insurance companies, big pharma, and plutocrats.

    Clueless GOP voters are merely the tools by which the powers behind the GOP act until touch screen voting tampering renders them unnecessary.

  • Redshift on May 23, 2011 2:24 PM:

    I think you're too quick to dismiss epistemic closure. Conservatives who are absolutely certain they're right no matter the evidence to the contrary are constantly dismissing polls that disagree with what they believe. The fact that the fringe that's now most of their bloc in congress dismissed polling from their own leadership's pollsters just means that the bubble has gotten tighter.

    We've seen this since the Reagan era -- there are plenty of conservative ideas that they're fully aware are unpopular, but they're absolutely certain they will work, and that when they do, everyone will see how brilliant they are and support them. (The fact that no expert who's not on the wingnut welfare dole says they can work doesn't even register.) The Ryan budget is another one of these.