Seniors or sensibility

For all the Tea Party’s earnest hopes about reduc­ing the deficit and achiev­ing a low-​​tax bal­anced bud­get, the Republican Party can’t sur­vive with­out seniors’ votes. But any respon­si­ble plan for cor­rect­ing the government’s bud­get future must change seniors’ enti­tle­ments. Which makes it hard to see how Republicans can please seniors, their most loyal sup­port­ers, and Tea Partiers, the the newest mem­bers of the GOP coali­tion and the ones that put the party over the top in this month’s election.

David Frum points out that the deficit com­mis­sion pro­posal is already fac­ing bit­ter oppo­si­tion from the likes of Sean Hannity, who summed up the proposal:

First, they want to increase the Federal Gas Tax rate start­ing in 2013 by 15 cents per gal­lon. Next they pro­pose increas­ing the Social Security retire­ment age. Now third, the com­mis­sion is call­ing for cuts in both Social Security and Medicare ben­e­fits. . . . And we’re going to means test [Social Security ben­e­fits] so you’ve got to pay your whole life, and if you paid your whole life, you’re going to—we’re going to con­fis­cate it basically.

As Frum explains,

What we see in today’s GOP is a party whose ide­ol­ogy (lim­ited gov­ern­ment) and whose con­stituency (the biggest recip­i­ents of domes­tic gov­ern­ment spend­ing) are sharply at vari­ance. That vari­ance is not a sus­tain­able sit­u­a­tion. In fact, it’s not sustained.

Cracking the nut of seniors’ oppo­si­tion to key changes is dif­fi­cult,  but absolutely nec­es­sary. Part of the solu­tion is already in the com­mis­sion chairmen’s pro­posal: make the changes grad­ual, so that peo­ple at or near retire­ment don’t get the rug pulled out from beneath them. For exam­ple, the chair­men pro­pose to raise the retire­ment age, but only by one month every two years, and only after the retire­ment age is sched­uled to increase to 67 (in about 2025). If seniors can be con­vinced that the bud­get will not be bal­anced on their backs, then they can help fix the fis­cal cri­sis that looms over the country.