Cost-cut talk is long on emotion, short on details
In the heated talk about deep spending cuts that will dominate Congress in the coming weeks, one thing is likely to be in short supply: details.
The reason is simple. Americans embrace the general, abstract idea of reducing federal spending. Their support quickly fades, however, when specific programs are targeted.
That's why Republicans wrap their calls for deep spending cuts in broad generalities, even as they call on President Barack Obama to propose more detailed cuts of his own. "Where are the president's spending cuts?" House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said last month in the "fiscal cliff" debate, which did little to reduce federal outlays.
There's a problem with the GOP strategy. It's Republicans, not Obama, who advocate bigger spending cuts.
The White House seems in no hurry to help Republicans out of their awkward position. Obama notes that he already has offered more details for reduced spending than Republicans have, partly because he is obligated to propose a budget every year.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking toward the March 1 start of major, across-the-board spending cuts that both parties call unwise. These are the postponed cuts - or "sequester," in Congress-speak - lingering from the partial resolution of the "fiscal cliff" on Jan. 1.
These cuts would hit military and domestic programs hard. But they would spare "entitlements," the popular but costly programs that include Medicare and Social Security. Leaders in both parties say lawmakers soon must confront entitlements if they are to stem the nation's long-term deficit-spending problem.
Republicans - and to a lesser degree, Obama - say it's time to start slowing the growth of these programs' benefits. But their proposals would delay the biggest impacts for years. Republicans have called for shifting major health care costs to states, where outcomes are hard to predict.
This makes it almost impossible for Americans to calculate exactly how and when the proposals would affect them. The more they learn, however, the more they might object.
"Talking about cutting entitlements in the abstract is popular," said Bob Bixby of the Concord Coalition, which advocates balanced budgets. But when it becomes clear that people's future Social Security and Medicare benefits might be trimmed, he said, "They say, `Whoa, wait!'"
Congressional Republicans have endorsed sweeping changes in government health benefits for future beneficiaries. They would change Medicare into a voucher-like program that would limit government contributions to older people's health care. The benefits might not grow as quickly as medical inflation, forcing seniors to pay a larger share of the costs.
Medicaid, the federal health program for low-income and disabled people, would be turned over entirely to the states. The federal contribution would be indexed for rises in overall inflation and population, but is unlikely to keep up with the growth in medical costs.
Republicans say their support for these plans - which died in the Democratic-controlled Senate - prove they will stand up for bold cost-cutting changes.
But Republicans muddied their message, and infuriated opponents, when they attacked Democrats in the 2010 congressional elections for trimming Medicare spending as part of the "Obamacare" law. Last year's Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, further muddied the message by making similar Medicare accusations, and by advocating hikes, not cuts, in the military's budget.
At a news conference Monday, Obama needled Republicans for advocating huge cuts without detailing where the pain would fall.
"Congress has not been able to identify $1.2 trillion in cuts that they're happy with," the president said, "because these same Republicans say they don't want to cut defense. They've claimed that they don't want to gut Medicare or harm the vulnerable. But the truth of the matter is that you can't meet their own criteria without drastically cutting Medicare, or having an impact on Medicaid, or affecting our defense spending."
The math, Obama said, "doesn't add up."
Obama said he remains "open to making modest adjustments to programs like Medicare to protect them for future generations."
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said Obama must do more. "We are hoping for a new seriousness on the part of the president with regard to the single biggest issue confronting the country," which is the debt and deficit, McConnell said.
White House aides say Obama detailed lots of proposed spending cuts in his 2013 budget proposal, which Congress rejected. Among other things, it called for reductions in health research, pollution control, education and military spending.
If Republicans want more detailed talks on spending cuts, Obama says, they must agree to new revenue.
No way, GOP leaders say.
The Republican Party's chief spokesman on tax and spending issues - House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, the 2012 vice presidential nominee - has acknowledged the political dangers of detailing plans to cut federal spending. He left out specific plans for slowing Social Security's growth, he told a 2011 audience, because "we thought that if we put one out there, it would just be too tempting for the Democrats to attack."
A November Associated Press-GfK poll about ways to combat deficit spending found substantially more support for reducing spending than for raising taxes. When examined individually, however, proposed cuts drew scant enthusiasm.
More adults opposed military spending cuts than supported them. Nearly half of Americans opposed raising the Medicare eligibility age or slowing its cost-of-living adjustments. Far fewer favored those ideas.
The pro-Democratic group Third Way says Americans are ready to swallow tough decisions about Medicare and Social Security, if politicians present them in a serious, bipartisan way.
Third Way co-founder Jim Kessler says focus groups prove that Americans don't like the idea of reduced benefits, "but they know something has to be done."
"Voters will forgive a bipartisan solution" to the entitlement programs' long-term funding problems, Kessler said.
"It's like going to the dentist," he said. No one enjoys it, "but you know it's the right thing to do."