Without a doubt, the Republicans seem set upon a high-risk strategy. Their congressional contingent last week decided to put all their chips on the Paul Ryan budget plan (all but ten Republicans voted for it in the House), which if adopted would leave the American safety net in tatters. If fully adopted, it would de-federalize Medicare, America’s most important social program, and leave individual citizens having to foot the bill for a larger and larger share of it in the future. And while gutting one of America’s most popular programs, it would hand the wealthiest Americans an enormous gift to the tune of trillions of future tax dollars.
From a purely economic point of view, the plan would not come close to reducing the deficit as advertised. Paul Krugman calls it “the most fraudulent budget in American history” for good reason. The plan claims to shrink the deficit by getting rid of tax loopholes, but since the largest and most obvious candidates for elimination, such as the loophole allowing the wealthy to pay a mere 14% tax for income from capital, have been ruled out by the Republicans, it is hard to take their revenue ideas seriously.
If the budget proposal is skewed in its priorities and fails to offer an economic argument that adds up, how can the Republicans defend it, especially in an important election year when the Democrats will be ready to target it? The answer is that Republicans will rely on their proven ability to spin things their way and will lay out a narrative that furthers their obectives. Their strategy, which can be surmised from current pronouncements, involves two key elements. First, it involves linguistically reframing the economic issues to have a maximum impact on voters. Secondly, it relies on a “shock” strategy similar to that utilized by Scott Walker and other GOP governors following the 2010 elections. As noted in Naomi Kelin’s famous book (The Shock Doctrine), the strategy uses a crisis, or the threat of one, to propose revamping the economic order and instituting maximum deregulation.
On the reframing issue, the Republicans learned some lessons from their less than successful rollout of Ryan’s 2011 plan, which was widely panned as an assault on the safety net and a gift to the wealthy. This year they revived most of the earlier plan’s features, but made sure the new version would undergo some verbal retuning to guarantee it would be more pleasing to popular ears, thanks to some careful internal polling and product testing. As Politico’s Jake Sherman points out, they now call their reform of Medicare “bipartisan” (based on Democrat Ron Wyden’s brief flirtation with Paul Ryan) and talk of “fixing” Medicare to keep it from going “bankrupt.” They assure Americans over 55, a key voting block, that they won’t be “affected” and will have the choice of staying in the current Medicare system or using a new one. The reframing strategy has already been given a dry run in a race in Nevada last fall, in which Republican Mark Amodei defeated his Democratic opponent after first been threatened with defeat. The GOP is now ready to roll the new framing out on a national stage.
A shock-doctrine scenario is equally essential to the strategy. Republicans naturally are pushing the panic button not on the issue of creating jobs, but on the issue that highlights their favorite theme of responsibility, i.e. spending and the deficit. These are issues, of course, on which they have not excelled in recent years. Without embarrassment, however, they beat the drum against government excess and warn darkly of “irresponsibility.” Specifically, they call Medicare broken and predict economic catastrophe unless something is done quickly to solve it. This year they have a proven means of turning the screws and raising the volume: congressional disruption. The Ryan plan explicitly breaks the hard-won agreement made last year with the Democrats on a budget figure, setting the stage this summer for another ugly round of congressional warfare. By assuring gridlock on the budget, the Republicans can place the issue of the deficit at the center of debate, and position themselves as heroic defenders of “tough” decisions in times of crisis, fighting against undisciplined and feckless Democrats.
All of this Republican stategizing and refiguring puts a lot of pressure on the Democrats to do what they have hitherto been so inept at doing: making people see through the the haze and support what is in the national interest. One can only hope they step up to the plate this time.