Sen. Kirk Dismisses Negative Polling On GOP Budget With '80s Reminiscing

April 21, 2011 8:41 am ET — Kate Conway

Yesterday on Fox News, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) faced a tricky reality when host Gregg Jarrett pointed to a poll showing that a strong majority of Americans oppose cuts to Medicare and Medicaid. "Are you on the wrong side of that issue?" asked Jarrett.

"No, I think good politics is always good policy," said Kirk before bolstering his position with an inapt example. "Remember, Democratic Speaker Tip O'Neill and President Ronald Reagan faced numbers even worse than that just prior to Social Security going bankrupt in 1982."

JARRETT: You mentioned entitlement reform, but I want to put a poll up on the screen that just came out. By a huge margin, Americans oppose cuts to Medicare and Medicaid. Those are the numbers there. They're pretty astonishing. Seventy-eight percent oppose cutting Medicare. Are you on the wrong side of that issue?

KIRK: No, I think good politics is always good policy. And remember, Democratic Speaker Tip O'Neill and President Ronald Reagan faced numbers even worse than that just prior to Social Security going bankrupt in 1982, and they put forward bipartisan reforms along the lines of what I think we should do again that saved the system. I think seniors know that these programs have no value if they go bankrupt and can't protect them. And I think the kind of reforms that Reagan and O'Neill did in '83 will save Social Security and save Medicare, because a bankrupt program can help no one.

Watch:

But the entitlement reform proposals the GOP has brought to the table are neither good politics nor good policy. The GOP budget — titled the "Path to Prosperity" — proposes to upend Medicare and Medicaid, shifting costs onto seniors and poor people. They're so unpopular because their cost control mechanisms rely on the destruction of the social safety net rather than focusing on balancing the budget while still maintaining the integrity of the program.  

Kirk brushes off the deep unpopularity of his party's problematic approach by pointing to 1982, but Social Security reform efforts in the early 1980s bear only minimal resemblance to the GOP's demands when it comes to entitlement reforms today. In the '80s, the GOP was still trying to fix the system rather than dismantle it, and in the end they were willing to consider tax increases. As Brookings' Paul C. Light explains, both sides were able to eventually agree to "mutual sacrifice":

The two sides closed the deal by subjecting up to half of Social Security benefits to income taxes for higher-income beneficiaries, a provision that allowed Democrats to say Republicans had passed a tax increase and Republicans to say Democrats had agreed to a benefit cut.

Despite Kirk's calls for bipartisan reforms, Republican leadership has been consistently unwilling to consider any compromise that includes raising tax, even on the top two percent of earners, despite strong public support for such a move. In fact, Republicans want to use the money they will strip from Medicare and Medicaid to give tax cuts to the very wealthy.

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