Why Would Cutting Medicare Be Popular For The President, But Unpopular For House Republicans?

It’s clearly the case that the political interests of the White House in getting re-elected and of House Democrats in seizing the majority are only imperfectly aligned. On the one hand, both benefit if people have generally good vibes about the Democratic Party. On the other hand, if objective conditions in the country are rapidly improving that might help incumbents across the board. But I think Ruth Marcus speaks for the majority of the Beltway establishment when she sees a more fundamental misalignment of interests, positing a theory that doesn’t make any sense to me. The way this goes is that a “grand bargain” of tax hikes and entitlement cuts is politically beneficially for President Obama but harmful for House Democrats:

Then there is the politics of the situation, which tacitly align Obama’s interests with Boehner’s — and against those of House Democrats. The president, demonstrating openness to entitlement cuts, repositions himself toward the center, thereby attracting independent and moderate voters who have become disillusioned since 2008.

There is, to be sure, a risk to Obama of further alienating his liberal base and further enraging seniors, who already deserted Democrats in droves in 2010. There is not an obvious constituency cheering for tax increases or pleading for painful cuts. Still, the potential political benefit of the grand bargain outweighs the potential cost with seniors. Unemployment is likely to remain unacceptably high by Election Day. A big debt deal would at least give the president an argument that he has put the budget on the right track.

However, it would simultaneously undercut House Democrats’ desire to run against end-Medicare-as-we-know-it Republicans. What helps the president hurts House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.


But how does this work? It’s either the case that Pelosi and all public opinion surveys ever taken are correct and running against Medicare cuts is a sound political strategy, or else it’s the case that secretly moderates and independent voters have been lying to pollsters and love Medicare cuts. My guess, though, is that the polls are accurate. Running against end-Medicare-as-we-know-it Republicans is a good strategy for House Democrats and running against end-Medicare-as-we-know-it Republicans is a good strategy for the White House. I think the right way to think about the calculus here is just that President Obama would really like to get a deal done. Giving up the end-Medicare-as-we-know-it Republicans argument is the carrot to try to get them to agree to tax increases. Most liberals would, I think, rather get tax hikes by playing Bush tax cuts chicken in 2012. But the White House would really like to see an agreement on this point.