In The New York Times today, National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru urges Republicans to wait to tackle entitlement reform:

Reforming [Social Security and Medicare] is vital to our nation’s long-term fiscal health — which is why Republicans should resist this advice and leave the issue alone. Reform is impossible this year or next unless President Obama takes the lead on it. What’s more, Republicans have no mandate for reform, and a failed attempt will only set back the cause.

Some Republicans are understandably eager to take on these entitlements. “The third rail is not the third rail anymore,” Representative Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin,said in December.

Maybe he’s right. But Republicans have gotten a painful shock every time they have decided it’s finally safe to take on entitlements. Ronald Reagan suffered a defeat in his first year when he tried cutting Social Security’s early retirement benefits. Newt Gingrich’s 1995 Republican revolution fizzled when President Bill Clinton fought him over Medicare cuts. President George W. Bush’s effort to reform Social Security in 2005 ended any political momentum he brought to his second term.

Would-be reformers should draw two lessons from this history. The first is that reform can’t be sprung on the electorate. Reagan hadn’t campaigned on cutting Social Security in 1980, nor did the Gingrich Republicans promise to reduce the growth of Medicare.
Today is no different: while some Republican candidates in the last election spoke forthrightly about the need to rein in these programs — notably Representative Ryan himself, but also new Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky — most of them didn’t.

Ponnuru makes the case that voters just aren’t ready, noting that most oppose cuts to entitlements and “are likely to be very nervous about any proposals to restrain their growth, especially if opponents portray such cuts as excessive.”

On the major legislative point, I agree: It may be true that the GOP will need to wait to overhaul our entitlement programs. But I would phrase it somewhat differently. It’s not really that they should. It’s that they might have to in order to succeed.

Ponnuru is right that voters tend to be wary of anything portrayed as an entitlement cut. But voter attitudes can change. The more pressing barriers to entitlement reform are the administration, and to a lesser extent, Democratic control of the Senate. Everyone knows the House GOP’s ObamaCare repeal bill won’t get beyond the House. Major entitlement reform—a defined-contribution overhaul of Medicare, for example—would be similarly stymied. Ponnuru gets at this later when he notes that “presidential support for [entitlement] reform is a necessary, though not a sufficient, condition for success.”

In the near term, then, Ponnuru says that Republicans should “leave the issue alone” but that they can set the stage for entitlement reform by blaming President Obama for any lack of progress on making the programs sustainable and affordable.

I hope they’ll go further than that. Blame is a political tactic. What the GOP needs is to make a coherent policy case.

Republicans probably won’t be able to make legislative progress before the next election, but they can begin the process of building support and making the argument for reform—through oversight and hearings in Congress, through educating themselves on the issues (as Ponnuru notes, with a few exceptions, many Republicans are not comfortable or adept at talking about the details of either Medicare or Social Security), and by learning to communicate those details in a clear and convincing way to the public.

The Democratic establishment spent years building both the policy case and the political coalition to pass the PPACA. They did their homework. Members of Congress learned to make a policy case in addition to a political case. It paid off  with the passage of major legislation.  Republicans have talked a lot about reducing the deficit in recent months, and a lot about cutting spending and streamlining government. But most Republicans have been loath to even discuss specific cuts or delve into any details of what they want from entitlement reform. I can understand reticence to introduce or support detailed legislation given how low the chances are that it will pass. But the unwillingness to even mention specifics has to change, and soon. If they hope to overhaul our broken entitlement system, and not just use the system’s problems as an easy political cudgel, they will need to make a similarly comprehensive and policy-focused effort to the one Democrats made prior to ObamaCare.

In the meantime, I very much hope the GOP takes up Ponnuru’s final suggestion, which is to begin work on overhauling Medicaid immediately:

Medicaid is wrecking state budgets and is set to expand thanks to the Democrats’ new health care law. It is also more politically vulnerable than Social Security or Medicare, which offer benefits to everyone who reaches old age. As they try to undo the health care law, Republicans might also consider capping Medicaid’s growth and sending the savings back to the states.

He's right, although I hope the GOP will do more than "consider" reform. At the state level, Medicaid is a giant mess. It’s also far more dubious than Medicare in terms of the actual health benefits it provides. As a result, it probably presents the best opportunity for substantial entitlement reform in the near term. But the long-term problems with Medicare and Social Security shouldn't be left alone, even temporarily, either. Reformers in Congress might not be able to win any legislative victories between now and 2012, but they can certainly start process of building a case.