Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) is an entitlement and debt hawk, but he considers the plan to defund Obamacare by his Texan colleague Sen. Ted Cruz “terrible.”
The freshman Republican—elected in 2010—likes to talk about the big spending numbers attached to Social Security and Medicare, both of which he sees as being on an unsustainable path. But in a revealing comment Tuesday at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Johnson made three critical statements that provide insight into the current gridlock over the budget and the debt ceiling:
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* Most Americans are ignorant about Social Security and Medicare. Johnson said, “we’re past the point” where Americans get back what they contributed to Social Security. Meanwhile, the government pays out $3 in Medicare benefits for every $1 in revenues. This makes both programs unsustainable and drivers of an unwieldy debt burden in excess of $100 trillion over the next 30 years, Johnson said.
“That’s the money of your children, grandchildren, great grandchildren,” the senator said. “We’ve got to get people to understand that dynamic.”
But for the moment, both programs are politically untouchable. House Republicans have repeatedly voted to turn Medicare into a voucher-style program, but only for Americans younger than 55, such that younger generations—the children and grandchildren mentioned by Johnson—would be subsidizing baby boomers.
Democrats rejected the idea, although Obama wants to limit the size of Medicare payments to prescription drug companies. But when Obama proposed using a less generous measure of inflation when adjusting Social Security payments, he lost a fair amount of Democratic support and the White House eventually backed away.
* Numbers are truth. This is the other huge assumption by deficit hawks such as Johnson. If voters simply see the same numbers that he looks at, Republicans win public support. This assumes that Republicans have perfectly distilled objective statistics—and they have not always done this. The budget plan by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) would on paper balance in 10 years, but the House could not approve the sharp spending cuts required when it came time this summer to pass appropriations bills.
Likewise, CBO budget projections are routinely inaccurate, particularly on the 30-year scale preferred by Johnson. The Wisconsin senator correctly identifies the demographic challenge and financial pressures caused by baby boomers retiring, but the exact impact in 2030 represents an educated forecast, rather than an exact prediction.
Still, Johnson is convinced that the numbers are on his side, a point that will be repeated by other Republicans as they try to force a favorable deal from Obama on the 2014 budget and the debt ceiling.
“Once we move the discussion to facts and figures, the statistics are bulletproof,” he said. “They can’t be challenged. Because it’s not demagoguery, it’s actually truth.”
* Obama won because ignorant voters went to the polls last year. When Johnson tried to explain why the gridlock exists, he noted that 500,000 more Wisconsinites cast ballots in last year’s presidential election than the failed effort to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker a few months earlier
As a result of those 500,000 more votes, Democrat Tammy Baldwin was elected in November to represent Wisconsin in the Senate, even though the state had returned Walker to power at the statehouse.
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Johnson stressed that he did not want to malign participatory democracy, but that the outcome reflected the influence of disengaged voters.
“How can Wisconsin have Ron Johnson and Tammy Baldwin? This is actually very simple. It’s math. In my election, which was an off-year election, there were 2.2 million voters. In the Scott Walker recall, which in Wisconsin was a really big thing. That was a really big deal. Everybody knew about it. There were about 2.5 million voters. Another 300,000 people came out to the polls to reelect Scott Walker. In the presidential election, there were 3 million voters.”
This is where Johnson makes his big pitch: “I would argue that if you’re not involved enough in the process to come out and vote in the Scott Walker recall, how informed are you really? On what basis are you casting your vote?”
For those not offended by the comment, Johnson makes a pretty revealing statement about the GOP. Democrats succeeded in 2012 because a greater share of registered voters showed up. That percentage drops in mid-terms, which means that Democrats might not be able to unseat most congressional Republicans because of the budget battle.