Mitt Romney at CPAC last week
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the year of protecting Social Security, and the year of cutting Social Security. It was the age of defending Medicare, and the age of ending Medicare.
In other words, it was another day on the Mitt Romney campaign trail. This week Romney's evil twins (there isn't a good one) played both sides of the Social Security issue, but finally came down on the side of the party's power brokers.
That placed him squarely against its own rank and file, as a new video and recent polling both confirm.
But then, reversing himself is a Romney specialty. Last week the "effectively pro-choice" turned "pro-life" candidate went to the CPAC Conference to tell the world about his "extreme conservative" governorship of Massachusetts - Obamacare is Rightycare when Mitt does it - and it was all "we conservatives" this and "we conservatives" that.
Then he directed his double vision toward Social Security and Medicare.
One Romney Makes Entitlements Safer ...
Yesterday Romney slammed President Obama on entitlements, saying "the president has failed to offer a single serious idea to save Social Security and is the only president in modern history to cut Medicare benefits for seniors." He added that Obama "had nothing to say about making sure that those programs are solvent and permanent."
Romney's stance as a pro-entitlement champion echoed the GOP's "Seniors' Bill of Rights," which was a hallmark of their winning 2010 Congressional campaign. That plan insisted on "no cuts to Medicare to pay for another program: Zero."
Then, after the election, they promptly introduced the Ryan Plan to dismantle Medicare altogether. (Those who claim that it wouldn't end Medicare are living in an Alice-in-Wonderland world - and smoking the Cato-Piller's hookah ...) Romney didn't bother waiting.
... and One Romney Makes Them Small
Romney's CPAC speech was very specific about the cuts he'd like to make. He couldn't have been clearer. "Social Security and Medicare are unsustainable," said Romney, "not for the current group of retirees, but for coming generations."
See what he did there? Romney combined Social Security - a completely self-sustaining program - with Medicare, a program whose long-range problems are caused by precisely the kind of private-sector healthcare that Romney and his party defend.
And think about it: Would-be Social Security cutters like Romney are always telling us it's unsupportable because so many Baby Boomers are about to retire. (In reality, they largely prefunded their own retirement with increased contributions and other changes.) Yet, like Romney, they then turn around and say that it's "later generations" who must face Draconian cuts.
It doesn't make sense - but making sense isn't their goal. Cutting Social Security is. And Romney's happy to carry out the mission he's been given.
... and the One That Grover Gives You Doesn't Do Anything At All
Romney's the Thing With Two Heads, the man with two opinions. How can a person pull off a trick like that? Practice.
Usually Romney waits a little while before reversing himself, but for Social Security and Medicare he's accomplished a feat physicists once thought impossible for anything larger than a photon: He's managed to be in two places at once.
But that's Mitt. He's a "second variety" candidate, a "shmoo," a shapeshifter who will become whatever's expedient. To call him an empty suit is to grant him too much substance. He appears to have no emotional core except ambition and no values except the net present value of the next job-destroying investment.
Romney is exactly who Grover Norquist thinks he is: Someone who will do what he's told. And the orders have already been written, as Norquist helpfully explained:
"We know what direction to go. We want the Ryan budget. ... We just need a president to sign this stuff ... The leadership now for the modern conservative movement for the next 20 years will be coming out of the House and the Senate ... Pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen to become president ... his job is to be captain of the team, to sign the legislation that has already been prepared."
That's where Mitt comes in.
Plan 59 From Outer Space
Besides, Romney already told us what he would do in his famous package of "59 economic proposals." There, as at CPAC, he promised that current retirees' benefits would not be affected and offers reductions in the already-inadequate cost of living adjustment - which is a benefit cut for current retirees too - as well as increases to the retirement age (in addition to those already underway, which nobody ever seems to mention. The next increase will amount to a 13 percent benefit cut for anyone born after 1959).
Romney's plan also states that Paul Ryan's plan to dismantle Medicare "makes important strides in the right direction by keeping the system solvent and introducing market-based dynamics," although he promises some unspecified differences.
Romney specifically excludes the one solution that is supported by most Americans, including most Republicans: Lifting the payroll tax cap so that it's assessed against more of the earnings of millionaires like himself.
Republican vs. Republican
That pits Romney and the Republican leadership squarely against their own base, as a recent poll shows: 69 percent of Republicans would rather raise the cap than cut benefits, including 67 percent of Tea Party members.
Seventy-seven percent of those much-sought-after independents agree, as do 84 percent of Democrats.
Pollsters couldn't find anyone aged 18 to 29 who supported the Romney position.
That means Mitt's Plan 59 is going to tick off rank-and-file conservatives, as you can see in this video from my colleagues and pals at Social Security Works:
These conservatives have a firm grasp of the topic. One points out that Social Security is an insurance program, while another notes that people have paid into the program all their lives and are entitled to receive its benefits. Both statements are absolutely correct.
A young conservative in the video shows equal perspicacity by saying that good conservatives like him shouldn't vote for Mitt Romney.
But in the end, if he becomes the GOP nominee most of them will. It's an old trick: In 2010 the Republicans ran as defenders of Medicare and Social Security. They even created a "Seniors' Bill of Rights" that declared flatly: "No cuts." But as soon as they re-took the House they immediately started pushing Social Security cuts and created the Ryan Plan to gut Medicare.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, I'm a conservative who votes Republican.
Action at a Distance
Contradictions be damned. Mitt soldiers on, his jaw firmly set and his head held high, marching resolutely in two directions at once. But the orders have been given and the stage has been set. We know where he'll really lead us if the two Mitts are elected President: He - or they - will cut Social Security and Medicare.
And if the last flickering embers of his conscience must die to do it, then so be it. "It's a far, far better thing we do today than we have ever done before ... "
If you want to serve power brokers like the Koch Brothers and Grover Norquist, you have to be willing to impose policies that vast majorities of voters - including your own base - overwhelmingly reject. Real leaders show us their one face, their true face. But if you want to serve the GOP's power elite then, as the old song says, "it takes two."
When it comes to Social Security and Medicare, Mitt Romney's showing them that he's just the men for the job.