The headline in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, “Disagreement Over Taxes Stalls Talks on Deficit,” encapsulates the Republicans’ problem. Whether it’s media bias or poor messaging, or a combination of the two, Republicans are losing the battle over avoiding the so-called fiscal cliff. Thus far, despite repeated Republican statements about the importance of entitlement reform, the media continues to focus on whether the Republicans will agree to tax increases on the so-called “rich.”
Losing this fight means one of two things—if the nation goes over the cliff, the Republicans will be blamed for the consequences, and if the cliff is avoided it will be because the Republicans caved to one or both of the president’s demands: Tax increases with only token entitlement reforms and/or elimination of the debt ceiling.
This is truly absurd. The tax increases the president wants will do nothing to solve the nation’s fiscal problem; it is a wholly symbolic issue. Everyone in Washington knows this. Yet, somehow, the Republicans have allowed the president and the media to frame the whole fiscal cliff issue as a dispute about whether taxes will be raised on two percent of taxpayers.
But that is not what this struggle is about. The Republicans are taking this beating because they want something that the American people badly need—reform of the nation’s uncontrolled entitlement spending. The fact that the president has been able to participate in this debate—and in fact win it thus far—without making a serious proposal on entitlement reform, is a stunning political coup. We all know that the Democrats will never agree to control entitlements until the president himself comes forward with a plan. Otherwise, they are content with polls that tell us—no surprise here—that Americans do not want anyone to touch Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid.
So the Republicans must change the media’s focus, turning Americans’ attention to the need for entitlement reform as we enter the last few vital weeks of the lame duck Congress.
How can this be done? The Republican message should be simple: we will have nothing further to say on the issue of taxes or revenue until the president comes forward with a serious plan on entitlement reform. Relentless focus on a message like this will turn the media’s attention from how much the Republicans will yield on taxes to what the president is willing to do on entitlements. That may not win the debate, but it will at least help the American people to understand that the Republicans are in this fight not to protect the rich but to protect the long term health of the entitlements that Americans want to keep.