The public release of the president's budget triggered an avalanche of commentary and criticism from across the political spectrum. Liberals insisted that its proposed changes in Social Security and Medicare would gut those programs while conservatives denounced it as being full of "smoke and mirror" provisions that make its claims of debt reduction illusionary.
In the early days of the republic, presidents didn't issue budget proposals. The Constitution gives Congress the sole power over federal expenditures. It was only as the executive branch began to grow in size and complexity, and particularly when the country went to war, that Congress allowed the president to project how much money would be needed, and for what purposes, in the coming years. A president's budget carries weight because of the amount of expertise behind it, but legally it is no more than a suggestion and can be ignored, as many of Ronald Reagan's budgets were.
So, why all the furor, if this is just a suggestion? Two reasons: momentum and symbolism.
Momentum is not just a law of physics. Once a government program is put in motion, it tends to stay in motion, in the same direction, at a slightly higher cost every year. Each such program has a constituency and being included in a president's budget legitimizes it. Any suggestion in the president's budget of a change in a program's momentum and direction — up or down — energizes the relevant constituency, creating political consequences.
Symbolism also has political consequences. This president's budget marks the first time a Democratic president has formally suggested Congress change the spending trajectory of entitlement programs, specifically Social Security and Medicare. The changes suggested are financially tiny but liberals see them as a huge symbolic betrayal. That is why they attacked the president so severely.
This could have been a Republican opportunity. Suppose they had said, "Thank you, Mr. President, for recognizing that the current pattern of entitlement spending is unsustainable. You and we both know that if it is not changed, it will hurt all seniors, particularly the poor. While we doubt that your suggestions will solve the problem, we are very pleased that you have acknowledged it and are willing to work on it with you."
That would have symbolically put Republicans on substantive high ground and cast the president's liberal critics as obstructionists who don't want problems to be solved. It would also have increased Republican bargaining power during subsequent negotiations, because it would have deprived the president of any excuse to change his position. By passing up that opportunity and denouncing the entire budget as nothing but a political document, Republicans strengthened the hands of the liberals.
"See? You offered conservatives an olive branch and what did you get? Personal abuse! You should have known that you can't deal with them! Stick with us!"
This version of events is taking hold in the public mind. It not only reduces Republican bargaining power but allows the president to have it both ways. In theory, he's responsible on entitlements but unable to act because of Republican intransigence. In practice, liberals get what they want and the president pays no political price.
Substantively, the Republican reaction to the president's budget was fully justified; the document is open to legitimate criticism on many points. If enacted in its entirety, it would almost certainly not achieve the results it promises. Strategically, however, because it does contain the symbolic admission that Republicans are right about entitlement spending, a more nuanced reaction could have set the stage for a positive shift in momentum on an issue of great import. An opportunity missed.
Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.