STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Senators and representative hold budget talks this week, a meeting that should have been routine but was not arranged until after a government shutdown. Now Democrats and Republicans are supposed to set a framework for federal spending, on everything from defense to education to helping seniors.
Ron Brownstein of National Journal says it's going to be hard because of both party's political calculations. He starts us off with Democrats.
RON BROWNSTEIN: The highest priority has been preserving, as much as possible, of the existing entitlement structure. And I think it is a case of steering through the rearview mirror. You know, the Democratic Party, in its mind they created these programs: Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and they view themselves as the defenders of seniors. The reality is that over time one effect of this has been, as the programs have grown more generous, but also simply as a society has aged, is that they are a consuming a larger and larger share of the budget and putting more pressure on programs that benefit the next generation, really the investments in the productivity of future workers in education, in research and development and infrastructure.
And the irony here is that Democrats are now essentially laying down on the tracks to prevent any changes in programs that benefit seniors who are voting more and more Republican. Part of the price of that is that they are squeezing, whether they mean to or not, programs that benefit younger, heavily non-white families that vote for them three or even four to one.
INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about the flip side of that, because then you have Republicans who are talking about, for example, making major changes to Medicare, and that is a program that is depended on by an awful lot of Republican voters.
BROWNSTEIN: Right. Look, I think the Republicans are in a very difficult situation too, and one in which I think they are making a significant long term tactical mistake. The reality is that the highest Republican goal in any budget talks is to restrain the growth of these entitlement programs and to significantly restructure them.
The problem they face is that the core of their constituency today is the people who benefit primarily from these programs. I mean Republicans now are heavily dependent on the votes of older whites who are polling, and other polling shows, are deeply resistant to any changes in these programs. And I think the mistake they are making is that their calculation seems to be that if we wait out the Obama presidency, we can come in in 2017 perhaps with unified control of the House, the Senate and the White House and impose the changes we want on entitlements without having to pay the toll that Obama has set up, which is we will only look at entitlements if you agree to more revenue.
And they say, okay, we'll wait him out, we won't have to make that trade. But I think there's a fundamental contradiction in that, which is that the only way they get unified control in 2017 is through a very strong showing precisely with the older white voters who are deeply resistant to changing these programs, and I think it is going to be much harder than they expect today to, without any bipartisan cover, unilaterally significantly restructure these programs.
INSKEEP: So making these kinds of changes is dangerous for either party and the safest course is either to get both parties to work together or maybe to have the kind of situation that we have now where both parties make their proposals, appeal to their base and their ideologues, but don't actually do anything that would worry the seniors.
BROWNSTEIN: Right. And look, that doesn't really work for either side, right, because if you think about the goals that each party has set out, one for the Republicans, clearly they want to control the size of government. As I said, I think it is almost impossible to keep government to the same level of the economy that it's been over the last three or four decades as the number of seniors doubles over the next quarter century, but you don't have to completely surrender to that either.
I mean you have to try to bend that curve, otherwise you'll be imposing probably unacceptable tax burdens on future workers. You can't do that without dealing with entitlements. And then, conversely, I think, for many Democrats it is absolutely critical to restore more of a public investment agenda - I mean healthcare is part of that, the healthcare law is part of that, education is part of that - that will try to deal with problems like inequality and stark racial disparities in educational attainment and income.
INSKEEP: Is there an argument to be made for just not doing very much, muddling through these next few months, coming up with budget agreements of an ordinary annual kind which it seems plausible that Congress might do and just seeing if it can't be worked out five years from now, 10 years from now?
BROWNSTEIN: Yeah, I do. I think that the two sides are pretty much exhausted by their collisions with each other and I can't imagine there is the stomach for another full scale confrontation, nor is there any of the political prerequisites for a deal.
INSKEEP: Ron Brownstein is editorial director of the National Journal. Thanks very much.
BROWNSTEIN: Thanks for having me, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.