The Wall Street Journal’s Holman Jenkins argues the Affordable Care Act will change how Republicans and conservatives argue about entitlements and welfare. They will draw a line, Holman writes, between “earned” entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security vs. “unearned” welfare such as Obamacare subsidies, Medicaid, and food stamps. Coincidentally, of course, this position would reflect the immediate interests of the GOP voting base. Jenkins:
Scorekeepers judge the tea party caucus and Republicans to be net losers from the ordeal. … Not appreciated is the powerful new meme Mr. Obama has handed them, which will transform entitlement politics in our country. The new “conservative” position will be to defend Social Security and Medicare, those middle-class rewards for a life of hard work and tax-paying, against Mr. Obama’s vast expansion of the means-tested welfare state for working-age Americans. … Look for means testing possibly even to evolve into a new pejorative in Republican mouths, suggesting undeserved benefits for groups that mostly vote Democrat.
“Defund ObamaCare” will turn out to be a slogan of genius that resurfaces again and again as the Affordable Care Act, because of its flawed design, needs more and more public funding to keep it afloat. Republicans secretly love the idea that Democrats will be stuck with the Obama welfare state, setting up fights in our overstretched republic between Mr. Obama’s “unearned” handouts and the “earned” handouts of the traditional entitlements. Team Romney was already trying out the new meme in the last election, casting ObamaCare as a threat to Medicare.
Jenkins may well correct about this political and policy realignment, at least over the short term. There certainly seems to be less passion among older tea party GOPers to means test Social Security and Medicare benefits than to repeal Obamacare and trim Medicaid and other welfare benefits for the poor. For instance: During the recent budget fight, Business Insider sent reporter Brett Logiurato to the district of Rep. Ted Yoho, a Florida tea party Republican, to see how voters there thought about America’s debt problem. This exchange is telling:
So what can we cut?Social Security? Medicare?Those are the big, long-term problems on our docket.
“No one’s going to cut Social Security or Medicare. That’s another scare tactic,” Biddle said.
So what can we cut now?
“You can start with foreign aid. Cut that out. You can cut, you know, federal arts.”
Of course, you cannot solve America’s long-term debt problem without entitlement reform. Medicare and Social Security spending as a share of GDP, according to the CBO’s cautious baseline forecast, is expected to rise from 7.9% this year to 11.1% in 2038. And well-designed means testing is part of the solution. As AEI’s Andrew Biggs wrote in a 2011 National Affairs piece: “It is inevitable that Social Security, Medicare, and other government programs will become less generous toward the rich than they are today. The only alternative is ever-increasing taxes and their toll on personal welfare, individual freedom, and economic growth.” The math is the math.
And a reminder about “earned” entitlements: Here is a chart showing total Medicare and Social Security taxes paid and benefits received: