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What Were House Republicans Thinking?

Republicans appear to be nervously backing away from their plan to transform Medicare into partially-funded private insurance vouchers:

After House Republican leaders pushed through a budget that contained a politically charged plan to overhaul Medicare, the chairman of the House tax-writing committee suggested Thursday that he did not intend to draft legislation turning the proposal into law any time soon.
The comments by Representative Dave Camp, the Michigan Republican who is chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, coupled with remarks by other top Republicans, suggested that the party’s Medicare proposal was firmly on hold even though lawmakers had taken a risky vote to support it in the House. ...
Privately some top aides said the conflicting and unclear message from the leadership had left many Republican lawmakers confused and unhappy.
“It is a big problem,” one aide said. “Things are unraveling.”

Jonathan Bernstein says this is "close to surrender on the issue." Jonathan Cohn, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein wonder what the House leadership was thinking when it forced Republicans to vote on this budget.

I'm not sure what the answer is. But I don't think the current retreat is actually all that significant. Republicans were never going to pass this proposal into law with Barack Obama sitting in the White House. No matter what they threatened or held hostage, this simply had zero chance of becoming law.

So why take the tough vote? Let me think of a few reasons:

1. Create leverage for the budget negotiations. Republicans start with an extreme proposal and demand its adoption as the price for lifting the debt ceiling and then approving the 2012 budget. They don't get it, but if Obama meets them halfway, they've gained by redefining halfway as far to the right as possible.

2. Build a meta-narrative about the deficit. Republicans have made hay by blaming Obama and the democrats for the debt, which almost entirely reflects policies they inherited. That becomes a harder game to play if Republicans can't claim to balance the budget. So they decided to produce a balanced budget and vote on it as quickly as possible, in order to change the subject back to Obama and his failure to tame the deficit.

3. Inoculate their plan. This is what Republicans would like to pass if they win control of the White House and the Senate in the 2012 elections. By voting on the budget now, the House takes a hit -- but maybe a quick hit. Why a quick hit? Because voters aren't going to get too exercised about a vote by the Republicans during a Democratic presidency. Voters know that Democrats hold the power. This is the best way to cast that vote. Now, they'll have to cast it again in 2013 if they want it to become law. But then they'll have survived the hit, they'll have some courage, and maybe Democratic attacks will sound stale and old. (They always say we're after your Medicare...) The vote now will normalize what would be truly shocking actions two years later.

I'm not saying these are the actual reasons for the Ryan budget vote, or that they're sufficient reasons to make the plan sensible. I think Republicans more likely just got caught drinking their own Kool-Aide about how the public agrees with their vision. But it's possible they had a real plan. And if they did, ignoring their budget for a while doesn't really get in the way of it.