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Could the GOP’s spending plan backfire?

The $61 billion in cuts passed by the Republicans go far beyond what anyone expected.

It’s no surprise that the new, “Tea Party–charged” Republican caucus in the House of Representatives would try to reduce federal spending, said Philip Rucker in The Washington Post. But the $61 billion in cuts they passed last week in a party-line vote go far beyond what anyone expected. The bill would defund NPR, PBS, and Planned Parenthood—institutions long detested by conservatives—and slash budgets at the Department of Education, the IRS, and the Food and Drug Administration. But the Republicans also made “deep cuts to programs historically supported by their party,” including border security and defense. The bill is really just political theater, said Adam Nagourney in The New York Times, since it won’t get past Senate Democrats and President Obama. Still, some GOP leaders privately worry that the newly radicalized House Republicans will be “perceived as overreaching” by voters and risk an “electoral backlash” at the polls in 2012.

That won’t happen, said Charles Krauthammer in The Wash­ington Post. Attentive voters will be far angrier with Obama for his utter refusal to tackle the nation’s fiscal crisis. The president’s recent budget was a duplicitous hodgepodge of rosy projections, negligible spending cuts, and “happy talk, debt-denial optimism” that would add $7.2 trillion to our national debt by the end of this decade. What we really need, and Obama knows it, are cuts to the Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid programs that currently make up 57 percent of our spending. But with 2012 looming, Obama would rather shift “all responsibility for serious budget-cutting to the Republicans.” Obama’s using a scalpel when we need “a meat axe,” said Mona Charen in National Review Online. Granted, the “discretionary” federal programs like those targeted by House Republicans account for only 12.5 percent of spending. But what’s wrong with “using that as a starting point?”

“The whole budget debate is a sham,” said Paul Krugman in The New York Times. Both parties know that health care is “where the money is,” yet they’d rather dicker over the “small budget sliver” of discretionary spending than tackle politically explosive entitlement programs. The difference is that Republicans are determined, for reasons of ideology and symbolism, to slash federal spending despite the fact that “the economy is still deeply depressed.” The sheer lunacy of this is stunning. Spending cuts, by definition, lead to slower growth, lower tax revenues, and a bigger deficit, not a smaller one. Obama, by contrast, has “done more to rein in long-run deficits than any previous president” by tackling Medicare costs in last year’s health-care bill.

So why doesn’t he use the presidential “bully pulpit” to address entitlements? said John Farmer in the Newark, N.J., Star-Ledger. Our straight-talking governor Chris Christie is finding that voters are prepared to reward political courage and candor. A “presidential first move” on entitlements could benefit Obama handsomely in 2012. Don’t hold your breath, said Ross Kaminsky in The American Spectator online. The president clearly has no stomach for the entitlement fight, but this refreshingly aggressive package of GOP spending cuts suggests that the Republican Party just might. Social Security reform has long been known as the “third rail of politics” that nobody wants to touch. But if Republicans can find the courage to seize it now, they could invest that metaphor with a new meaning. Entitlement reform could be the “power supply” that helps “recharge their political fuel cells.”

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