May 6, 2015


Mike Huckabee, Anti-Reform Conservative (Ross Douthat, MAY 6, 2015, NY Times)

[C]hange itself can be a frightening thing, and the heart of the Republican base now consists of a demographic, senior citizens, that's getting a pretty good deal relative to just about everyone else from the welfare state as it currently exists. And then of course even among non-seniors old-age retirement programs are very popular, both because they lift some of the burdens of caring for aging parents and because they offer a promise of future security to people struggling in the present.

Conservative reformers have tried to take these political realities into account, which is why their/our preferred entitlement reforms tend to be more moderate and gradualist than what some on the right have supported in the past. But in the end all of the plausible proposals floated to date, whether they involve some version of premium support for Medicare or a means-tested redesign of Social Security, do necessarily involve real changes to those programs, and reduced benefits over the long term for some people covered by them. Because those programs are expensive, and their projected costs are devouring so much of the budget, you basically can't have a coherent right-of-center reform agenda if you just leave them alone.

But if you don't care about having such an agenda, if you're willing to eschew real reform entirely and and simply promise to protect Medicare and Social Security indefinitely while cutting spending on some unspecified range of "wasteful" government programs instead -- well, then you can craft a message that in its own way speaks to precisely the socioeconomic anxieties that reform conservatives are trying to address, but does so in a much simpler and therefore perhaps more reassuring way. Instead of promising that conservative ideas can change public policy for the better, you can just exploit conservative instincts to hammer everyone else -- the left in some cases, your rivals on the right in others -- whenever they propose any kind of alteration to entitlements.

This is basically what a number of Republicans did with Medicare throughout the Obamacare debate. The G.O.P. crafted a message that was more explicitly responsive to middle class anxiety than a lot of right-wing policy talk tends to be: They attacked the president and the Democrats for making a "raid" on entitlements, for breaking faith with seniors, for skimping on retirement spending in order to achieve their universal health care dream ... and while it wasn't a winning presidential-level message, with the older whiter midterm electorate it worked out pretty well.

As a matter of policy, such a Mediscare strategy clearly makes any kind of actual conservative reform, to health care or entitlements or both, that much harder to achieve. But as a political matter, this sort of anti-reform conservatism no less (and perhaps sometimes more) than reform conservatism can speak to many anxious voters where they are.

Now it seems that Huckabee intends to run for president on what is basically an amped-up version of this strategy: Medicare today, Medicare tomorrow, Medicare forever, and keep your government hands off my Social Security too.

It's wealthy old white folk who were afraid their government checks would go to young coloreds instead, not that there's anything wrong with voting naked self-interest.

Posted by at May 6, 2015 4:02 PM

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