John Boehner’s constant refrain in advance of the 2010 elections was, “Where are the jobs?”
It was a simple question pertinent to the concern far and away foremost in the public mind — the state of the economy. Since the election, the question for the GOP has become, “Where is your concern about jobs?”
The unemployment rate is still at 9 percent. According to Gallup, 35 percent of people say the economy is their top concern, and 22 percent say jobs. Just 12 percent cite the federal deficit and debt. Republicans have taken the top concern of roughly 1/8th of the public and made it their existential cause. On top of that, they have taken a subset of the debt issue, the long-term fiscal sustainability of Medicare, and made it their calling card.
If political life were fair, they’d be rewarded for their farsightedness. Medicare’s trustees report that the trust fund that covers hospital stays will go broke in 2024, five years earlier than forecast just last year. But bureaucratic reports about threats more than 10 years off don’t hit people where they live, especially not during a recovery that still feels like a recession.
If you are worried about the security of your job, if your personal income is stagnant, if the value of your home is still declining, and if you are paying more for food and fuel, the perilous state of a government program circa 2024 that you know, one way or the other, will never be permitted to go bankrupt is not a subject of proverbial kitchen-table conversation.
The special election in New York’s 26th District served as an early, albeit imperfect, referendum on the Republicans’ new calling card. Democrats made the Republican plan to transition Medicare to a premium-support program the overwhelming issue. It worked. Henry Olsen of the American Enterprise Institute points out that blue-collar independents and Democrats who swung the GOP’s way in 2010 swung against them this year. The Republican candidate Jane Corwin even bled blue-collar Republicans to a bogus “tea party” candidate.
These voters are especially sensitive to economic conditions and especially chary of changes to government programs they will come to depend on. They also are absolutely essential to Republican hopes in 2012.
Retreat on Medicare isn’t an option now. Like Cortes in Mexico, Republicans have disabled their ships behind them. With Senate Republicans voting overwhelmingly in favor of the Ryan budget during a Democratic-engineered show vote, all but nine Republicans on Capitol Hill are on record for Paul Ryan’s reforms. They’ll have to fight it out, and, as Abraham Lincoln advised Ulysses S. Grant, “hold on with a bulldog grip, and chew and choke as much as possible.”
But even the shrewdest Medicare messaging will not suffice. For a party obsessed with the legacy of Ronald Regan, post-2010 Republicans have been quick to forget the absolute pride of place he gave to economic growth.
The Ryan plan is called “The Path to Prosperity,” although prosperity hasn’t figured prominently in the conversation. Deficit reduction should only be an element of a program for renewing the economy, which directly impacts people’s lives and also makes controlling the debt marginally easier. By a rough back-of-the-envelope calculation, every 1 percent of economic growth above the assumptions of the Congressional Budget Office knocks $2 trillion from the debt over the next 10 years.
House Republicans just released a growth plan. Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio has been evangelizing for a growth agenda since his election last year. The elements are familiar — cutting taxes and reforming the tax code, reining in regulation, increasing energy production, passing free-trade agreements. It doesn’t have much chance of getting signed into law, but neither does Ryan’s Medicare plan.
All of it is an exemplary exercise setting out a vision counter to President Barack Obama’s and demonstrating that Republicans still know the most important question in American politics: “Where are the jobs?”
Rich Lowry is a syndicated columnist. He can be reached via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.