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Kondracke: Fiscal Fight Is One for the Generations

Instead of learning lessons from recent upheavals, GOP and Obama continue to battle

Here we go again. Instead of learning from the past four years to avoid brinkmanship, make deals and solve problems, it looks as though President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans just need to fight.

After they battled to the brink of the fiscal cliff and reached a last-minute agreement, you’d think they could have started bargaining to forestall the next set of crises.

But no, the essential deal-makers — Obama and Republican leaders John A. Boehner of Ohio and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky — are back in their corners, ruling things out rather than in.

Obama will not negotiate terms for raising the national debt ceiling, while Republicans are insisting on a dollar of spending cuts for every dollar in new borrowing authority.

McConnell insists that, after raising $625 billion in taxes over 10 years (out of $8 trillion in anticipated deficits), the GOP will not revisit tax policy, while Obama is insisting on raising more revenue through tax changes.

And Obama says he will agree on only “modest adjustments” to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, while Republicans are insisting on major overhauls to “save” those programs.

The fiscal fights are in addition to battles royal to come over gun control and immigration — wedge issues likely to poison the atmosphere for negotiation.

Both sides ought to be guided by the adage attributed to Theodore Roosevelt: “The art of politics consists of holding out for everything you can get — and no more.”

But Republicans suspect that Obama intends not to compromise with them but to crush them — forcing the party to look extreme on guns, the debt limit, Medicare and immigration so it loses more seats in the 2014 elections.

And they may walk right into the trap, especially if the dominant right wing of the House Republican Conference actually refuses to lift the debt ceiling, and the government, unable to pay its bills, shuts down.

Obama made it clear in his Jan. 14 news conference that he’d focus the blame on Republicans if the U.S. proves to be a “deadbeat nation.”

History — the 1995 government shutdown, the 2008 bank bailout vote, the last debt ceiling crisis and the fiscal cliff — suggests that Obama’s got it right: The markets and public opinion will make Republicans cave after they’ve damaged their brand.

At the same time, Republicans have it right in saying that the United States can’t really get its fiscal house in order unless it tackles the entitlement mess, especially Medicare.

Now costing $550 billion a year, Medicare is slated to cost $1 trillion in 2020 and double as a share of gross domestic product even faster than that.

By 2050, Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid and interest on the national debt will account for 20 percent of GDP — the share that now pays for the whole federal government including defense, education, transportation and law enforcement.

As The Urban Institute points out, the average couple pays $119,000 in Medicare insurance over a working lifetime — then collects $357,000 in benefits.

In 2030, because of rising health care costs, the average couple will have paid in $175,000 and will collect $527,000 in benefits.

It’s part of an overall pattern that current seniors (including me) and baby boomers are set to live well at the expense of generations to follow.

But even seniors will ultimately suffer if younger workers don’t have the skills and infrastructure to be productive and support them.

Again according to The Urban Institute, state and federal governments spend $3 on seniors for every $1 on children. That spending has reduced poverty among seniors to 9 percent. Among kids, it’s 22 percent.

Politically, generational justice is difficult: Seniors and soon-to-be seniors vote. Children do not. Seniors have AARP lobbying for them as ferociously as the National Rifle Association does on behalf of assault weapons. Kids’ lobbies are much weaker.

Theoretically, Obama should be the champion of younger voters — the victims of generational injustice — because 60 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds voted for him, while 56 percent of seniors supported Mitt Romney.

But, weirdly, Obama is resisting entitlement reform while the GOP is riskily promoting it. It could be part of his crush-’em plan.

One would hope the sides would quit trying to do each other in, realize they have to live together and get busy solving America’s problems. Alas, it’s probably a fantasy.

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