Two of my favorite political writers are having a disagreement. Ramesh Ponnuru argues that congressional Republicans should focus on repealing Obamacare, cutting discretionary spending and block granting Medicaid to the states. Ponnuru thinks that the Republicans should not try to pass laws that cut Social Security benefits to high earners or cut Medicare and convert it into a subsidy for private insurance. Ponnuru would prefer that the case for entitlement reform be made primarily by the 2012 Republican presidential candidate. Yuval Levin argues that any budget that does not reform the two big entitlement programs just doesn't make any sense. Levin wants reform of Social Security and Medicare reform in the budget resolution as a way to advance the argument.
I'm mostly in Ponnuru's corner on tactics. The Republicans, as a group, didn't run as Medicare cutters. They ran on restoring Obamacare's cuts to Medicare. I know that f you really look at what Republicans said you can find weasel language that would allow for Medicare cuts for some purposes, but the public heard what they heard. This is an indictment of the campaign that most Republicans ran in 2010, but here we are. Ponnuru is right that you shouldn't just spring Medicare cuts on people. You also shouldn't just spring transforming Medicare into a whole different kind of program. Voting in 2011 to convert Medicare into a defined contribution program will be doing something you never promised in order to impose a policy most people have never heard of (never mind support) and whose benefits would be invisible to most people. And all of these changes to a popular (though insolvent) program with a vast and dependent constituency.
Having said that, Levin is right that time is not on our side. As the programs stay unreformed, we will eventually get to the point that the most obvious way to change the programs would be some combination of huge tax increases and the centralized rationing of medical care (and probably not just for the elderly.) We shouldn't waste time and we shouldn't wait for Mitch Daniels or whoever. Congressional Republicans also shouldn't have a high profile fight with Obama in 2011 on cutting Social Security and converting Medicare into a defined contribution program. The policies in question (especially on the Medicare reforms) have never been heard of by the public. Even the vast majority of self-described conservatives probably could not give a coherent answer explaining why a defined contribution Medicare program would be better for the elderly than centrally administered death panels. I suspect that your average Republican member of Congress would do no better. You just can't win the argument on such a high stakes, high salience issue when your spokesmen are incompetent and the public uncomprehending. The first step to winning is increasing public understanding.
Congressional Republicans could do something to advance the cause of Social Security and Medicare reform. They could lock themselves in a room with Yuval Levin, James Capretta, Thomas Miller, Douglas Holtz-Eakin and Paul Ryan. They could try to learn, in as much detail as possible, why a combination of phased in Social Security benefit cuts for high earners and a slightly higher retirement age are preferable to sharp tax increases. They could try to learn why a defined contribution version of Medicare would (along with other health care policy reforms)improve the quality of care for seniors while preventing the government from going bankrupt and then explain why the Democratic plan for Medicare would decrease the choice and quality of care available to seniors. Then congressional Republicans should try to translate what they learn into concise and plain English.
Congressional Republicans could increase public knowledge of and support for these policies a little at a time. A few hundred thousand people on a regional conservative radio talk show. A million or so on the Hannity show. Maybe a booking on NPR will make some converts. Paul Ryan can't be everywhere at once. The more people have heard of these policy ideas and their benefits in a nonthreatening format, the more open they will be to the adoption of these policies. It doesn't sound like much, but ten or fifteen members of Congress working all the media that will have them could vastly increase public knowledge and (maybe) public support for conservative entitlement reforms (though from a very low base when it comes to Medicare.) Ponnuru is right that the real debate over entitlement reform will have to be between Obama and his 2012 Republican opponent (this is of course assuming a certain amount of principle and competence in the Republican presidential nominee.) Levin is right that time is running out. Congressional Republicans (and other institutions of the right too) should be doing all they can to educate the public on the comparative benefits of conservative entitlement reform. That is why Republican members of Congress should not wait until the Spring budget fight. They should start that education process right now and they should start with themselves.