Heighten-the-Contradictions: From the Center, It’s No More Convincing

Dayen has this covered fairly well (although I don’t endorse the ad hominem bits), but I still have a some things to say about Jon Chait’s call for a pre-emptive surrender on raising the Medicare eligibility age. First of all, Yglesias is right that it’s impossible to evaluate the concept without knowing what we’re getting in return, and it’s true that to get something in a negotiation you generally have to give something. But this really helps Chait only in the most theoretical sense. Not only because Chait is offering to make what everyone agrees would be a really, really terrible policy concession without explaining what Republicans have to give up for it, but because nothing that’s being discussed would make remotely it worth it. Sure, if you could really substantively strengthen the ACA by trading the eligibility age for a robust public option and more money for Medicaid that would provide greater incentives for recalcitrant states, that might be worth doing. But there’s no plausible scenario in which Republicans will actually offer anything like that. The actual deal apparently being discussed — trading terrible Medicare policy changes for less than you’d get in upper-class tax rate increases if you just did nothing — would be an incredibly bad deal that suggests that Obama hasn’t learned anything about dealing with congressional Republicans. Right, you have to give something to get something — but the expiration of the Bush tax cuts and the defense cuts in the sequester already provide plenty of leverage.

So why on earth are we talking about making a major policy concession on Medicare in exchange for unspecified concessions that Obama can probably get using the leverage derived from the sequester? Chait offers a couple of unconvincing justifications. The first argument is that raising the eligibility age has a “weirdly disproportionate symbolic power, both among Republicans in Congress and establishmentarian fiscal scolds. Mitch McConnell and Erskine Bowles alike would regard raising the retirement age as a sign of serious belt-tightening and the “structural reforms” conservatives say they need.” I don’t really buy it. Bowles might like it, but he doesn’t actually have any meaningful constituency. In terms of congressional Republicans I’m much less convinced. Again, I need to know what I’m getting in exchange for this, and there’s nothing Republicans seem to be offering that wouldn’t be plausibly attainable by offering middle-class tax cuts and restoring some defense spending after January 1. (And I’d rather compromise on tax rates than by weakening the welfare state, particularly since any win on raising the top marginal rates will last until the next time the Republicans control the White House and the House of Representatives simultaneously.)

There’s a second justification, which is essentially a heighten-the-contradictions from the center. The policy change will be so bad that it will be good because people will agitate to make it better:

What’s more, raising the Medicare retirement age would help strengthen the fight to preserve the Affordable Care Act. Republicans may be coming to grips with their lack of leverage over the Bush tax cuts, but their jihad against universal health insurance lives on. Having narrowly lost their wildly tendentious legal argument for striking down health care, they are devising newer and even more implausible ones. Republican governors continue to turn down federal funding to cover their poorest uninsured citizens and refuse to set up private insurance exchanges.

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