How Karl Rove Will Blame Republican Cuts on Obama

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By Francis Wilkinson

The state of the Republican Party remains the most interesting and arguably consequential political story around. Republicans have quite a few issues to work through, but perhaps none is more vexing than the conflict between their ideology and their voter base.

The party's varied anti-government and small-government sentiments are crystallized in the drive for spending cuts. Meanwhile, its core voters are the elderly Americans who are most dependent on the nation's costly social insurance programs -- Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which account for two-fifths of the federal budget. If you're going to cut spending, that's where the money is, especially given an aging population and rising health care costs (along with the desire of many Republicans to increase defense spending, which already accounts for another fifth of the budget).

This has created the awkward situation in which Republican leaders Mitch McConnell and John Boehner insist that the White House identify the spending cuts that Republicans demand. Republicans desperately want to cut spending -- just not as desperately as they want to avoid blame for cutting popular programs that receive the spending.

In today's Wall Street Journal, Karl Rove tries to square this circle, advising Republicans on how they should go about extracting spending cuts in waging a debt-ceiling fight:

But this means House Republicans must pass a measure pairing specific spending cuts with a debt-ceiling increase that will have few, if any, Democratic votes. It would therefore be tactically wise for Republicans to draw many of these cuts from the recommendations of Mr. Obama's own National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (aka Simpson-Bowles).

It would be even better if much of the savings were achieved by moderating future spending increases or freezing outlays, rather than reducing them from today's levels. Both are possible: Congressman Paul Ryan's proposed budget plans -- approved by House Republicans in 2011 and 2012 -- achieved most of their savings by restraining future growth.

Rove figures that if Republicans adopt cuts proposed in the Simpson-Bowles report, they can convince voters that the cuts are actually Obama's, even if they receive no Democratic support. To further muddy the waters, he advises Republicans to push the cuts into the future lest voters feel the pinch too early -- say, 2014, when Rove is hopeful Republicans can take back the Senate.

What's remarkable about this is how unremarkable it is. Rove's premise -- that Republicans need camouflage for their beliefs and actions in order to maintain political viability -- is widely shared. Consider this Senator Marco Rubio Tweet highlighted by Ezra Klein, which is more or less a 140-character version of Rove's column.

The party's allegiance to policies that its leaders fear to bring to market is treated as a tactical challenge, not an existential one. By all indications, Republicans intend to finesse the problem at least until the presidential field of 2016 takes shape. Until then, jujitsu.

(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)

Read more breaking commentary from Bloomberg View at the Ticker.

-0- Jan/10/2013 18:13 GMT