A Farewell to Entitlement Reform

 logoBy Holman W. Jenkins, Jr., WSJ

After Iowa, the populist dog whistle in Republican politics gets louder.

151223_POL_Trump-Beats-Cruz.jpg.CROP.promo-xlarge2Ted Cruz engineered his Iowa triumph by coaxing hard-core evangelicals to participate in Iowa’s quirky caucus process. His victory hardly makes him a shoo-in for the nomination any more than Mike Huckabee’s or Rick Santorum’s did.

But now we know why every third word out of Donald Trump’s mouth in the past week was “evangelical,” pronounced as if he had been practicing an unfamiliar locution in front of a mirror. Mr. Trump is a game theorist. He clearly understood that shifting evangelical votes to his column from the Cruz column was his highest-leverage strategy for fending off the Texas senator who had become his main threat.

Though finishing one and two, neither Mr. Cruz nor Mr. Trump comes away with the aura of a coalition expander who can prevail in the more diverse electorates down the road, beginning with New Hampshire next week. Marco Rubio, who finished third, does come across as a coalition expander, while handily relegating the rest of the so-called establishment candidates into the also-ran category.

Mr. Rubio, to those willing to bet on something resembling a reversion to normalcy, is now the front-runner. To those who think we’re not done with weirdness, particularly the Donald Trump weirdness, at least Mr. Rubio is in the running to become Mr. Trump’s main rival.

Mr. Trump will now have to show he can do some coalition expanding too, or he’s likely to fade. That means putting to rest the fears of Republicans who have something to lose from chaos in national policy-making—who aren’t treading water and bereft of hope on one hand, or living on Social Security and Medicare on the other.

Which brings us to the meaning of Trumpism. One of his consistent bits of wisdom, voiced last April even before he launched his presidential campaign, goes like this: “I am actually disappointed with a lot of the Republican politicians. I am a conservative Republican. . . . Every Republican wants to do a big number on Social Security, they want to do it on Medicare, they want to do it on Medicaid. And we can’t do that. And it’s not fair to the people that have been paying in for years and now all of the sudden they want [it] to be cut.”

Mr. Trump is a political harbinger here of a new strand of populist Republicanism, largely empowered by ObamaCare, in which the “conservative” position is to defend the existing entitlement programs from a perceived threat posed by a new-style Obama coalition of handout seekers that includes the chronically unemployed, students, immigrants, minorities and women.

This political rationale was emerging in the 2012 Obama- Mitt Romney race, though not yet fully formed. It surfaced again in the 2013 tea party fight over the debt limit, a Kabuki play that allegedly threatened national default. The Kabuki was driven, recall, by the demand of Mr. Cruz and other tea party types that ObamaCare be “defunded.”

“Ted Cruz left with few friends after ObamaCare fight fails,” went a typical headline at the time. All the polls showed tea party Republicans the big losers in the showdown. Mr. Cruz earned the enmity that still resonates among many professional Republicans today. Most Republicans share his opposition to ObamaCare and his rhetorical commitment to repeal—but because they think ObamaCare is bad policy and are convinced Republicans have better approaches to health-care reform.

The tea party animus toward ObamaCare is something different: Implicitly, such means-tested new entitlements that benefit working-age folks and people (read minorities) who typically vote Democrat are viewed as a threat to the traditional, universal, “earned,” middle-class retirement programs of Social Security and Medicare.

Mr. Obama didn’t help himself, in his phony-baloney budgeting for ObamaCare, when he specified in 2010 that his new benefit program would be financed by cuts to Medicare.

Not only did Mr. Cruz live to fight another day. The unspoken tea party stance of defending the good old-fashioned entitlements of “real” Americans is increasingly, in dog-whistle terms, what differentiates one Republican from another.

Chris Christie, who went nowhere in Iowa, did himself no favor by dragging Social Security and Medicare into every debate, however much those programs need to be addressed. Marco Rubio was just as quick to modify any implication that Republicans therefore are entitlement reformers: “We are talking about reforms for future generations. Nothing has to change for current beneficiaries. My mother is on Medicare and Social Security. I’m against anything that’s bad for my mother.”

Welcome to an important new fault line in our slow-growth, resource-constrained America. Though many of us believe the entitlement programs need to be reformed, success will come increasingly to Republicans who pose as “conservative” defenders of Social Security and Medicare.

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